It was easy to understand why a story yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered appeared to favor the Republican position on Social Security. Let’s be clear. The piece pretty much stacked the deck against those who believe that Social Security is fine for the moment, and that benefits should not be cut or privatized, a position that polls show much of the public supports. As a journalistic endeavor, the piece failed its audience—just like a couple of other NPR stories on which Campaign Desk has commented.
The story’s premise is that for Republicans “it’s an article of faith that Social Security’s days are numbered,” and they want the president to join their cause and share whatever pain will come from either reconstructing the program or drastically cutting benefits. Either way, lots of ordinary people might lose—but that doesn’t figure much in NPR’s story.
The piece begins with none other than Rand Paul giving his usual Social Security spiel. NPR reported that last week on the Senate floor Paul “demanded an overhaul of Social Security and acknowledged the danger.” NPR aired this from Paul:
Most young people acknowledge that it’s broken—-it’s broken so badly that the only way we fix it and the only way it can continue is we have to look at the eligibility. But so many people have said, ‘Oh, we can’t talk about entitlement, you’ll be unelected; you’ll be unelectable if you talk entitlement reform.’
The next witness NPR presented was Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican. Like Paul, he’s no fan of Social Security. He argued that last year for the first time since the program began in 1935 it paid out more benefits than it received in payroll taxes. “Social Security is now at the tipping point, the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency if we don’t do something about it,” he said.
NPR then gave the Dems’ arguments a defensive gloss—“Democrats contend that because Social Security has a $2.8 trillion trust fund built up from surpluses, the program will remain solvent until 2037.” It’s the Congressional Budget Office, that neutral arbiter of all things fiscal, that has said that. At least NPR could have made that clear, and thrown in some context about the surpluses for good measure. For example, Dean Baker, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a group that advocates for Social Security, says the reason why payroll taxes were raised to a point where they exceeded benefits was to cover the cost of baby boomers’ retirement. That meant, he says, that there would be times like now where benefits exceeded taxes. Otherwise, the increases in payroll taxes in the 1980s would have made no sense.
But NPR did not go there, and next showcased Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican and Social Security antagonist, who had a reason why the $2.8 trillion surplus couldn’t be counted on. It was “stolen,” he said. “The money was spent. It’s broke. We’re going to have to fund $2.8 trillion over the next 20 years just to make the payments we’ve got.”
More context was needed here. On his blog, Baker tried to flesh out Coburn’s statement, explaining that not a penny was stolen from Social Security.
Social Security lent money to the federal government by buying bonds, just as individuals, private corporations and banks do all the time. When the government pays back the bonds held by the Social Security trust fund it will effectively be replacing bonds held by the trust fund with other bonds. The borrowing took place when the government sold bonds to the Social Security trust fund in the first place. It is not new borrowing when the government repays the bonds held by the Social Security trust fund.
Instead, listeners heard Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say: “Something must be done. And now is the time to do it. Republicans are ready and willing.”
“Where’s the president?” he asked. NPR reported that, at his last press conference, Obama “did seem close to talking about Social Security.” Did NPR assume that the president was thinking about Social Security when he said that after tackling defense spending, tax expenditures, and tax loopholes, we would tackle “entitlements?” Perhaps he was talking about Medicare, which is heading for financial trouble—much more trouble than Social Security is in.
NPR then gave the Democrats their turn, reporting that “Democrats on Capitol Hill seem even less inclined than the president to touch the Social Security third rail.” Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, stuck up for the little guy, nothing that Social Security is about the only thing many Americans think they can count on during these hard times.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, also a Republican deficit hawk, got in his two cents. He conceded it was politically dangerous to press for Social Security reforms now, but noted that the mood of the country is different: “They expect us to do things to stop the bankrupting of the country.”
NPR did offer the thoughts of one other Democrat and one independent. Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski believes the GOP wants to privatize Social Security.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, says: “This country faces a lot of very serious crises which should be dealt with yesterday. Social Security happens not to be one of them.” Then the kicker: “Not for Democrats anyway,” said NPR. What’s the public supposed to make of that?
There you have it—five Republicans vs. two Democrats and an independent. I suppose that’s one way to measure bias. Another way is to think about what NPR left out.
For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform, click here.Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: Campaign Desk, deficit, entitlements, liberal bias, NPR, Social Security