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Selling Social Security (Down the River)

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  • Eric Alterman
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As Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Matthew Miller argued in his syndicated column, recently, the mainstream media's willingness to cede the power to define the political agenda to the Bush administration constitutes a shameful dereliction of duty, particularly when it involves swallowing the phony scare tactics currently being employed to undermine the solvency of the Social Security program. It is on issues just like this that the public most relies on a free and open press to do some of the digging necessary to flesh out the parts of the story that are relevant to their lives, and it is exactly this point, as well on the related issue of providing true "balance" in its reporting, which the media has come up short time and again.

In its coverage of what is sure to be the Bush administration's signature program for 2005, the media has largely been content to rely on the interested commentary of government spokespeople and its partisans in conservative think tanks. On a "NewsNight with Aaron Brown," report recently misleadingly entitled "Social Security is in Trouble," CNN's Bruce Morton quoted Republican Senator Lindsey Graham together with pro-privatization activists from the Concord Coalition and the Cato Institute. Notably, no anti-privatization voices were aired during his report. Graham was also trotted out as the voice of privatization (or "reform" in the language of its supporters and a compliant press) by CNN anchor, Lou Dobbs, during which he claimed—unchallenged— "Social Security is going bankrupt, it's coming apart at the seams…We're short of money to pay the benefits. If we do nothing, the cost will be trillions, if we do something progressive, the cost can be managed. But to do nothing is a death blow to Social Security."

Instead of questioning the truth of Graham's statements, which are wholly unsupported by either CBO or Social Security's own data, Republican political contributor, Dobbs simply walked Graham right into his next talking point, saying "Let's talk about the idea of private accounts…" If Dobbs had done his homework, he would know that in fact the nation is not short on "money to pay the benefits." Those journalists who have done their homework on this issue are not so easily taken in. It's not as if the administration's misinformation campaign is not easy to debunk. In a news analysis, The Los Angeles Times's Joel Havermann did so with a simple rational examination of the facts. Blogger Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly also points out that projections in 1994 held that Social Security would go bankrupt in 2029, while current projections say that the point at which full benefits can no longer be paid will come 38 years from now, in 2042. There is no evidence that the program will go bankrupt, as Graham and others insist, but only that benefits will be cut so retirees receive 73 percent of full benefits after 2042.

Even so, the march of misinformation continues unimpeded. On December 9, the CBS Evening News profiled one Tad DeHaven, identified as a member of the "National Taxpayers Union." Presumptive anchor John Roberts reported that DeHaven, a 28 year old college graduate who is due to be married next year, plans to retire in 2042, "the year Social Security goes broke." As noted above, these assumptions are incorrect. Roberts nevertheless invited a conservative ideologue to make his case for privatization untroubled by the intervention of real-world calculations. (DeHaven's personal website indicates previous work stints at both the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.) Where was the balance? Where was the objective data such as the Center for Economic & Policy Research's contention that "projections show that [Social Security] will always be able to pay a higher real benefit than that received by current retirees." Not on the so-called liberal CBS News, that's for sure.

NBC's Tim Russert repeated the mantra that "Social Security faces a crisis," on "Meet the Press," last Sunday. Neatly framing the question as an either/or proposition while simultaneously assuming the lack of any available alternatives to the president's ruinous plan, he queried Howard Dean "Should Democrats work with the president in trying to set up some private accounts as a way of cutting the cost of Social Security long-term?"

As with the Iraq war, proponents of the Bush plan seek to tar their better-informed opposition as irresponsible and not to be trusted. New York Times' conservative columnist, David Brooks complained that "The people setting the tone for the opposition to the Bush Social Security effort depict the financial markets as huge, organized scams where the rich prey upon the weak. Their phrases are already familiar: a risky scheme, Enron accounting, a gift to the securities industry, greedy speculators preying upon Grandma's pension." Once again, we are expected to take the Bush administration's intentions, competence and veracity on faith; once again, reporters are assisting in the creation of a fictional universe in which "reality" only rears its head after the damage done to those least able to bear it is permanent and irreversible. Perhaps then some of them will learn to say they're sorry. In the meantime, the media has a ways to go to redeem themselves. Let's hope they begin sometime soon.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.

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Eric Alterman

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