CBS Story Short but Not So Sweet

Skimpy info in the network's take on retirement age

I am not quite sure what point CBS Evening News had in mind a few days ago when it aired a segment about raising the retirement age for full Social Security benefits. Maybe the show’s producer had heard there was some controversy and wanted to make sure the public knew the network was on top of it. But the piece failed to clear any of the smoke that clouds the public discussion over what is looming in the current fight over Social Security.

The piece was typical of what too many stories have become—formulaic and bland. It started with the required anecdote. How else do you start a story these days? Sixty-two-year old Joe Bergola has spent nearly forty years in a physically demanding job, and he says he looks forward to retiring with full benefits so he can play with his grandkids. He won’t be able to do that until he turns sixty-six, his normal retirement age. Bergola said: “If they force me to work till seventy, I’ll probably die before I get any Social Security.”

CBS reported that many of the seventy million boomers at or approaching retirement are worried that Social Security is at the risk of long-term insolvency. But the system will be able to pay full benefits to Bergola until around 2039, and three-quarters of his benefits after that. Since the pols have wrapped Social Security in so much misinformation, CBS could have helped its audience out by explaining the real story without using the scare word “insolvency.”

Instead, CBS stepped into another trap of formulaic journalism. It mentioned a new study—unidentified for viewers—that said one in three Americans over age fifty-eight works in a physically demanding job. Bergola was one of them. Okay, but how does that make the case for or against raising the full retirement age to seventy, as some suggest? Toward the end of the segment, CBS cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics, noting that high percentages of people between the ages of fifty-five and sixty experienced chronic pain in their jobs, and 46 percent said they had arthritis.

How exactly did those numbers connect to the central question? It would have been helpful had the segment acknowledged that people are living longer, but that the gains in longevity are not distributed equally throughout the population. Mentioning other solutions to fixing the program’s long-term fiscal problem would have signaled that there are other ways to mend Social Security besides raising the retirement age.

The piece then moved to the controversy—he said/she said style. An economist from the Urban Institute, Eugene Steurele, said that about one-third of the adult population will spend about one third of their adult lives on Social Security. Is that a bad thing? Steurele made it sound like it was. But by not providing more information, especially some numbers to support his statement, CBS implies that it is. Then House minority leader John Boehner got in his point of view—eventually raising the retirement age to seventy is a step that needs to be taken.

But then what happens to their benefits if they have to retire early, like all those people in physically demanding jobs? CBS didn’t tell them that their benefits will be less—a lot less. More than half of all Americans now take their benefits at age sixty-two. According to the Social Security Administration, those born between 1943 and 1954 who choose to take a benefit at age sixty-two will receive only about seventy-five percent of their full benefit; someone born after 1959 taking a benefit at sixty-two would get only seventy percent. Raising the retirement age to seventy would mean those early benefits would be reduced even more. That point should be part of every story discussing the consequences of raising the retirement age.

CBS did present the argument against raising the age in the form of quotes from Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist at The New School in New York. She explained that raising the retirement age was a bad idea, since it is a benefit cut for the people who need them most. “We’re forgetting that many of the reasons people live longer is that they’re able to retire earlier?” she said. Was this an argument for taking your benefits early? Geez! I though most of today’s longevity gains had to do with medical advances. Some more connective tissue might have helped put this statement in some sort of context.

CBS’s sketchy summary of raising the retirement age leaves a trail of questions. But at least the network attempted to address this crucial matter. Perhaps in future broadcasts the network can begin to answer them.

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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.