Shortly after the 2010 midterm elections, Washington Post budget correspondent Lori Montgomery reported that, while a debate raged around major budgetary changes and the wisdom of cutting Social Security, a “surprisingly broad consensus is forming around the actions required to stabilize borrowing and ease fears of a European-style debt crisis in the United States.” A consensus among whom, we asked? Ordinary people who like Social Security the way it is, opinion leaders, or the reporters who record what those opinion leaders say?
Social Security is the one issue on which the electorate is not divided. Gallup polls dating back six decades consistently show some 70 percent of the public strongly supports Social Security. Most Washington opinion makers think otherwise, though. Indeed, listening to the politicians and policy gurus, one would conclude that this most basic of retirement programs for nearly all Americans is in grave danger, and America itself is in grave danger because of it.
For nearly three years CJR has observed that much of the press has reported only one side of this story using “facts” that are misleading or flat-out wrong while ignoring others. Whatever the reason—ideology, poor understanding of how the program works, gullibility, or plain old reportorial laziness—news outlets have given the public a skewed picture of the financial health of this hugely important program, which is the sole source of retirement funds for millions of Americans and will continue to be for decades to come.
To be sure, Social Security is not in perfect financial health. But the fact is, the program can pay full benefits until 2036, and three-quarters of the benefits after that without new revenues. Many experts believe small fixes like lifting the cap on income subject to payroll taxes—$110,100 for 2012—will make Social Security solvent for decades. But that option is not on Washington’s table, nor has it been discussed much in the press. Why not? Because it doesn’t fit into the doom-and-gloom narrative that has proved politically expedient to tell?
The one-sided reporting on this issue has influenced the way millions of Americans, especially younger ones, now think about Social Security. A twenty-nine-year old web manager for a New York City agency recently told me she was opting out of the program, which the city pension system allows her to do. “I don’t think Social Security is a wise investment given the (availability) of a deferred compensation plan,” she said. “It’s a known fact,” the woman explained, “if it stays the way it is right now, it would run out of funds in 2035.” How did she know that? She listed the media outlets that helped shape her opinion. The elites were there like The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times, and Bloomberg News, but so were relative newcomers like Investopedia and other media products. The message from the elite media is trickling down.
“The elite press repeatedly quotes the commentary of the devoted opponents of social insurance retirement programs,” says Yale professor emeritus Theodore Marmor. “But they appear unaware of how they are supporting a strategic attack on social insurance that has been going on for years.”
Montgomery’s other writings leave little doubt where WaPo stands on Social Security. At the end of last year, she produced what Campaign Desk called a “lopsided special report that strayed pretty far into opinion territory” and offered a misleading explanation of the program’s finances; her piece prompted a letter of rebuttal from the usually low-key National Academy of Social Insurance, a nonpartisan group whose members represent all colors of the political rainbow. In a page one story this February, Montgomery reported that in Obama’s budget “there would be only modest trims to federal health-care programs and no changes to Social Security, the biggest drivers of future borrowing, despite last year’s raucous political debate over the federal debt.” The implied message: the president should have proposed major changes.
The Post’s editorial pages have also supported the same narrative. When, last year, the congressional supercommittee was attempting to cut a deal on Social Security, the Post noted that “crunch time” came with “a new round of self-centered, shortsighted intransigence on the part of AARP and its fellow don’t touch-my benefits purists.” Last week, columnist Robert Samuelson used his WaPo space to say that Social Security has evolved into what is now known “as welfare.” He asked a question he and other columnists at elite publications have asked for years: Who among the elderly need benefits? How much? At what age?