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?

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.”

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.