Samuelson has made these points before. In 1988, writing for Newsweek, he argued Social Security is a welfare program. In 1996, also in Newsweek, he seemed to challenge Bill Clinton “to alter the debate on ‘middle class entitlements.’” Earlier this year in the Post, Samuelson asserted “spending on the elderly is slowly and inexorably crowding out the rest of government.”

It’s a popular message. Broadcast anchors, hosts, and expert guests have also told the public that Social Security is the cause of the federal deficit, and have narrowly framed the possible cures. The ones mentioned most often include reducing cost-of-living increases; means testing the program, which will turn it into a welfare arrangement; and raising the age of eligibility to 69, 70, or higher. What is the public to think when they hear Eliot Spitzer opine, as he did last year on CNN’s Parker/Spitzer show, that “we need more senators down there who will say very clearly raise the retirement age, do it gradually.”
What are they to think when a CBS Evening News segment offers viewers what Campaign Desk called “a breathless recitation of the horrors befalling the system” that used scare words and phrases like “the system is headed for a crisis” and “there’s no debating that we’re running out of time.”

With that kind of news reporting, young people like the New York City worker can be forgiven for misunderstanding the concept of social insurance and believing Social Security is almost dead. Over the decades since the passage of Social Security in 1935, the media have used the term “social insurance” less and less, which of course keeps people in the dark about what it really is. In 1930, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune together published nearly eighty articles with the words “social insurance” in the headline. In 1990, there were at most two—one in the Times and one in the Post. By then the Cato Institute and other conservative think tanks were well on their way to changing the media’s narrative and description of Social Security. The program was no long to be described as social insurance, but as an investment that fell short of what people could achieve on their own by saving and managing their payroll tax contributions. It was not a good deal for younger workers.

In 1983, Stuart Butler, now director of the Policy Innovation Center at the Heritage Foundation, crafted a manifesto called “Achieving a ‘Leninist” Strategy’” outlining how the right could systematically attack the country’s most popular social program. The document advised “one element involves what one might crudely call guerrilla warfare against both the current Social Security system and the coalition that supports it.” Butler and his coauthor identified key interest groups—the young, the middle-aged, and those nearing or in retirement—to target. The manifesto also described the need for “an education campaign to gain the support of key individuals in the media as well as to win over vital constituencies for political reform,” and it called for exploring and formulating into legislative initiatives “methods of neutralizing, buying out, or winning over key segments of the Social Security coalition.”

The media haven’t reported much about how the nuts and bolts of proposals to fix Social Security would affect ordinary people, but they’ve done a super job of showing how Social Security’s opponents have brought one of the biggest segments around to their way of thinking—Congressional Democrats, including the second ranking member of the Senate, Dick Durbin, who is often the media’s go-to guy for the progressive perspective. It’s kind of a validation of Cato’s manifesto. As Politico reported, though Durbin had long allied himself with Social Security supporters, he said he’s been convinced that action is vital. “If we don’t do something and do it quickly bad things can happen in a hurry,” he said.

“We used to have Democrats speaking out (in support of the program) which we don’t have today, “ says Eric Kingson, co-director of the advocacy group Social Security Works. It was the Democrats who pushed for the payroll tax holiday—helped along by the media, which have passed along their quotes about assisting working people. Too often the reportage has glossed over the negatives of the tax cut, without noting what would happen if the tax is not restored. Kingson’s group and others, including some Republicans, argued that if the payroll tax is not restored and the government must borrow money from the Treasury to pay benefits to current recipients, Social Security will contribute to the deficit, which it doesn’t do now. That will produce more reasons to change the program. “Once the dominant view on each side of the aisle was that seniors need Social Security, and it was fair to everyone,” said Kingson. “Generations were not in conflict.”

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and 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. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.