The administration portrays these cuts in the projected budget as “savings” to the program because provider and insurance reimbursements won’t grow as fast as they otherwise might. Who uses which word depends on where spinners sit on the Great Ideological Divide.

Today the GOP likes the word “cuts” because it sounds oh so scarier to old people. The administration prefers “savings” because slowing down the rate of reimbursement to providers and insurers does save money for the program and frees up money for other purposes (like healthcare insurance subsidies).

But there is some interesting background to these word choices. In the mid 1990s, during another drive to privatize Medicare led by the conservative Heritage Foundation, it was the GOP who policed the media, making sure they did not use the word “cut” to describe changes they were promoting. As I reported in my book Slanting the Story: The Forces That Shape the News, Haley Barbour, then GOP National Chairman and now governor of Mississippi, vowed to raise “unshirted hell” with the news media whenever they used the word “cut.” As I wrote, “Barbour called news anchormen and correspondents and held breakfasts and lunches with reporters “educating” them on the difference between cuts and slowing Medicare’s growth.”

It wasn’t long before news anchors and reporters began using the different words. On the CBS Evening News correspondent Linda Douglas told viewers a Republican bill would double monthly premiums, create incentives to use managed care, and limit doctor and hospital fees—“all adding up to a savings of $270 billion in the growth of Medicare spending.”

So, in the mid-90s, Republicans wanted cuts in the growth of Medicare to be labeled “savings.” Now, Obama prefers that word, and the Republicans call them “cuts.”

The press coverage now

So far, in this round of privatization talk, some in the press have pushed back against spin. Sunday on Meet the Press David Gregory noted the $716 billion were “not benefit cuts. Indeed, Ryan made those same cuts in his own budget.”

Gregory asked one of his guests, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, if he thought that kind of talk was “over the top by the Republican ticket.”McDonnell didn’t answer the question and instead bridged to his talking points—“we have serious, hard talk and real solutions from the Romney-Ryan ticket. We’re in trouble in the country. We’ve got to make changes.”

On CNN, Soledad O’Brien pressed former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu so hard he became visibly agitated. Sununu charged that “Obama gutted Medicare by taking $717 billion out of it. The Romney plan does not do that.” O’Brien responded:

“I understand that this is a Republican talking point because I’ve heard it repeated over and over again. These numbers have been debunked, as you know by the Congressional Budget Office. It cuts a reduction in the expected rate of growth, which, you know, not cutting budgets to the elderly. Benefits will be improved.”

Sununu shot back: “Soledad, stop this! All you’re doing is mimicking the stuff that comes out of the White House and gets repeated on the Democratic blog boards out there.”

From my perspective, having covered this issue in the past, the coverage seems somewhat better than it was years ago. But: there has been little examination of what might happen if Medicare is divided into two parts, one with vouchers, the other with traditional Medicare—what experts call the “death spiral” for traditional Medicare.

And there is still way too much he said/she said reporting on this issue, in which reporters assume each side’s argument carries equal weight, even when they don’t, resulting in a faux balance. An NPR interview last week featuring Joe Antos, who represents the American Enterprise Institute, and Neuman of the Kaiser Family Foundation comes to mind. So does a piece that ran Sunday in the Tampa Bay Tribune, which is classic he said/she said. The dueling positions were headspinning.

The new spin

The media are beginning to understand that the president’s cuts to Medicare do not affect basic benefits. Now a new line of attack from the GOP is emerging. Antos on the NPR Morning Edition segment warned that seniors may find it harder to find the care they want—access problems, in other words—as a result of the spending cuts. “If you take enough money out of the Medicare program,” he said, “eventually you will run into access problems for seniors.”

On the NewsHour Friday, National Review editor Rich Lowry told Judy Woodruff that “technically they don’t hit benefits, the cuts. But when you are hitting the providers, the physicians, and the hospitals as hard as these cuts do year over year, they become totally unsustainable.”

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.