WG: My guess is that very few reporters understand what it is, or know that the concept of social insurance originated as a conservative idea—conserving social solidarity. It was first proposed more than one hundred years ago in Germany by Bismarck—not exactly a left-winger. Today’s critics style it as an entitlement program, and therefore reporters think that it’s like welfare. It’s not something the government gives to greedy old people. Alan Simpson has been relentless on this point. The press has picked up on Simpson’s language and made it sound like it’s a hand-out.

TL: A recent Bloomberg poll shows that two-thirds of those polled think the program should be means-tested. Has the press explained what that means?

WG: Social Security is by far the government’s most popular program precisely because it is universal. Everyone pays in; everyone is protected against catastrophe. The danger in means testing is that it really may turn Social Security into a welfare program—alms for the poor—and eventually doom it by destroying the broad political support it enjoys. That’s another aspect for debate the media has glossed over.

TL: Does Bismarck’s notion of social solidarity resonate in this country?

WG: The idea of social solidarity represents the core of our society. The belief that we’re all in this together has been trampled over in the last thirty years by conservative ideology. Good citizens and politicians have been sucked into believing that solidarity is not the issue. Until Americans rediscover the importance of solidarity, we’re going to be screwed up as a society. We will be trapped in brutal class conflicts and arguments over who gets more, who must be thrown over the side in the interest of business efficiency. I believe deeply most Americans do not want this dog-eat-dog brutality, but do not see much chance of changing it.

TL: What has to happen?

WG: We have to have a come back to this central principle of this society. The Tea Party in its own crude way is reaching for it. What people want is a government that works for them. Social Security is a great test case for what people want. By all means, let’s have a debate. But we haven’t yet had an honest debate.

TL: What can the press do to improve its reporting on Social Security and make this debate happen?

WG: There are a lot of smart, capable reporters. They have to go back to the beginning and put a story together that asks two simple questions: Why go after Social Security now? What is its real condition now? They need to go back to the basics of reporting—talking and listening, observing what people think about everyday reality. Talk to all sides respectfully. On economic issues, talk to the workers, not just the bosses and management experts. You will learn valuable insights from all of them.

TL: Is there any other advice you can give to newbies on this beat?

WG: The media, despite many virtues, are failing their obligations to a functioning democracy. Reporters might ask themselves if they are complicit in this indictment, or if they could do something to prove it is wrong.

For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform, click here.

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.