Pinning Down the Pols

NPR misses again on Social Security story

A few days ago, NPR’s Morning Edition brought together Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, and Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat—two members of a congressional strange bedfellows coalition examining the deficit. The topic, of course, was raising taxes vs. cutting spending.

Chambliss talked about reforming the tax code “in a way that makes it more fair to all taxpayers. That will have the result of increasing revenue.” Okay, but how? Host Steve Inskeep did not seek specific examples, but moved on, wanting to know “if there is increased revenue, are there going to be people on the Republican side who are going to say that’s a tax increase, people need to be defeated, people need to be challenged in primaries, that sort of thing?”

Chambliss replied that he couldn’t answer that, but nobody wants to raise taxes, and he hoped he would never have to vote for a tax increase. He repeated his point about making the tax system simpler and fairer, and that, at the end of the day, will generate revenues and save $4 trillion over the next ten years. Still, there was no pushback from Inskeep about how that would be done. Inskeep moved on to Warner, inquiring if the Dems had the appetite for those kinds of cuts. Warner seemed to say yes, and then, as if on cue from his talking points, he dove into Social Security, saying: “anything we do on Social Security would be only funds that would stay within Social Security. So it’s not we’re taking money from Social Security to pay off the deficit, it’s about making Social Security solvent for seventy-five years.” Was he saying that Social Security had nothing to do with the deficit? Inskeep didn’t press for more clarity, asking instead if the Democrats, or at least some of them, would go after anyone who signs on to changes for Social Security. A question for balance, no doubt.

Warner said that he was sure someone “will be concerned about touching this issue.” Not exactly a no or a yes, was it? Warner jumped back into Social Security, bridging to what he wanted to say, as media trainers advise. He said:

Social Security retirement age was set at sixty-five by President Roosevelt when life expectancy was sixty-four. Life expectancy in America now is about eighty. The math here is just irrefutable.

But his own math clearly was refutable. Either he didn’t know or didn’t want to tell the full story about the retirement age. For the record, Senator, the retirement age has been raised to sixty-six, and will go up to sixty-seven for those born after 1959. Again for the record, Senator, Congress made those changes in 1983, at a time when there really was a problem with Social Security’s finances. If the impression Warner wanted to give was that the retirement age for full Social Security benefits should be raised, he did that. Inskeep let that remark stand, failing to point out that the retirement age had already been raised and no longer was sixty-five.

This is not the first time that a Morning Edition host allowed a U.S. senator to leave incorrect and misleading impressions on the table. In November, we reported that host Renee Montagne did not challenge newly elected Colorado senator Michael Bennett when he asserted that if Social Security continues to exist as it does now there will be nothing left for forty-five-year-olds like him.

NPR’s latest slip-up made for some very unsatisfactory journalism that shortchanged its listeners.

Click here for more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform.

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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. Tags: , , , , ,