Proposals to change the Social Security system have taken shape, and could foreshadow long-lasting effects on the program. Many of these call for substantial changes to Social Security, but the public largely has only a vague sense of how their benefits might change, both in the short term and the long term. Campaign Desk has for months urged a broader discussion of Social Security by the news media. Over the year the country’s elite news outlets and bloggers have carried on quite a conversation about the proposed changes—but how these proposals affect ordinary people has been largely absent from the discussion.
I sat down with longtime political reporter William Greider to find out why. Greider recently won the Nyhan Prize for political reporting, given by the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. He is currently the national affairs correspondent for The Nation and has written about about Social Security for that publication. He has also worked for The Washington Post and Rolling Stone, and has written several best-selling books, including Who Will Tell the People: A Betrayal of American Democracy, which touches on the media’s role in American democracy.
Trudy Lieberman: What are we to make of this consensus on fixes to Social Security that some in the media tell us has been reached?
William Greider: This is a staggering scandal for the media. I have yet to see a straightforward, non-ideological, non-argumentative piece in any major paper that describes the actual condition of Social Security. The core fact is that Social Security has not contributed a dime to the deficit, but has piled up trillions in surpluses, which the government has borrowed and spent. Social Security’s surpluses have actually offset the impact of the deficit, beginning with Reagan.
TL: Why don’t reporters report this?
WG: They identify with the wisdom of the elites who don’t want to talk about this—because if people understand that Social Security has a $2.5 trillion surplus, building toward more than $4 trillion, people will ask why are politicians trying to cut Social Security benefits?
TL: Is that why coverage has been so one-sided?
WG: Most reporters, with few exceptions, assume the respectables are telling the truth about Social Security, when it is really propaganda. What elites are saying is deeply misleading, and they deliberately are distorting the story. But reporters think they are smart people and must know what they are talking about.
TL: Who influences the coverage?
WG: There are layers of influence that tell reporters this is the safe side of the story. They don’t go to people who might be unsafe sources, like labor leaders who know how changes will affect workers, or to old liberals who are out of favor but who know the origins of Social Security and why it was set up in the first place, or to neutral experts like actuaries who actually understand how it works and what the trust funds are all about. If they write about what the AFL-CIO thinks, they are out of the orthodoxy.
TL: What are other layers?
WG: Most reporters who cover difficult areas typically develop sources, and they write for those sources. They don’t want to offend them for fear they will lose access. Reporters, we know, are sensitive, nervous animals; they act like scared little rabbits. They also know what the owners of their publications think. And those owners think pretty much what the Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce think.
TL: Are reporters disconnected from the public?
WG: Reporters are so embedded in the established way of understanding things. They are distanced from people at large and don’t spend much time trying to see why ordinary people see things differently from the people in power—and why people are often right about things.
TL: Is this different than in the past?
WG: Yes. In the last twenty years, as media ownership became highly concentrated, the gulf between the governing elites, both in and out of government, and the broad range of ordinary citizens has gotten much worse. The press chose to side with the governing elites and look down on the citizenry as ignorant or irrational, greedy, or even nutty.