WG: As we are learning every day, most of them gave up on the press a long time ago. They realized that newspapers were not on their side. There was no longer that old-time relationship. People got the feeling that newspapers weren’t speaking for them. The new technologies give the “losers” new options for how to inform themselves. Some of these are half-baked or worse, but people will keep exploring alternatives and refining what they are willing to trust. The crucial point I am trying to make is that this process of citizens in a democracy keeping themselves informed does not belong to private enterprise. It does not depend on finding the right business model. People must find a way—and I think they will—regardless of whether newspaper and broadcasting owners want to assist them, or merely make money.

TL: Let’s go back and put all this in the context of the press coverage of Social Security. What should the press be reporting that they haven’t been?

WG: Opponents of Social Security are deliberately confusing Social Security with Medicare; they are distorting reality. There are simple facts that should be reported: 1) Social Security never contributed a dime to the deficit; 2) Social Security softened the impact of the Reagan deficits by building up a surplus; 3) the federal government borrowed the money and spent it on other things; 4) the federal government has to pay this money back because it really belongs to the working people who paid their FICA deductions every pay day. The elites in both parties know the day is approaching when the federal government has to come up with the trillions it borrowed from the workers. That is the crisis the politicians don’t want to deal with, so they create a phony argument that slyly blames working people for their problem. That’s the propaganda they want the public to believe.

TL: What are the facts about Medicare that they should be reporting?

WG: Medicare is separate and in serious financial trouble for two basic reasons driving up costs. First, thanks to medical advances and the effective public health system, our aging population gets to live steadily longer. That ought to be understood as good news for people and society, but instead elite opinion laments it. Second, the private health-care system is still centered on the profit motive, and that gives virtually every health care provider from doctors to drug companies strong incentive to keep raising the costs. That debate has also been grossly distorted in media coverage that typically dismisses alternatives as socialist—and that ends the discussion.

TL: Who is representing the public in this debate?

WG: The same people who rallied the public against Social Security privatization in the Bush administration. They have organized again. Some are the same players. Labor is on the barricades. Some righteous members of Congress. But in general the mass media don’t go to those dissenting voices. Instead, they are reporting factual errors as correct opinion.

TL: What do you want the press to do?

WG: I am daring reporters to go and find out the truth about this and report it. I’m not asking them to draw big conclusions or to assert their opinions. Just be honest reporters. It’s so frustrating to see the coverage. I’m not asking reporters to change any minds. I’m just asking them to do some real reporting. I mean, go to the facts—the actuarial records—and talk to a variety of experts. Reporters ring up the same sources and ask them how to think about Social Security.

TL: What does the public understand about what is happening?

WG: Not everyone understands what is happening. But most do. Most people know they have paid money into Social Security all these years and the money belongs to them, not the federal government. This is not welfare. It’s probably the best-understood program in the federal government. In fact, polls indicate in these troubled times the public believes people need increased benefits.

TL: Why hasn’t the press talked about Social Security as social insurance?

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.