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.

TL: Why is this so?

WG: The press is dangerously over-educated itself, in that reporters have developed different kinds of expertise themselves. And that brings them closer to their sources, more motivated to write for their approval. All this technocratic expertise encourages them to take a condescending view of the people they are writing for, especially in finance and economics. If all the elite experts assume Social Security is a problem, a reporter would lose respect if he or she seriously examined the counter arguments. Frankly, most political reporters don’t have a clue about the real facts. They write about Social Security as if it were just another welfare program. They do not seem to understand the surpluses are actually the savings of American workers—the money set aside for future retirement. This is virtuous behavior—the opposite of greed or the recklessness of financial elites.

TL: What has been other fallout from the rise of the techno-expert reporter?

WG: The new technological knowledge becomes a tool that blocks old-fashioned street reporting. The polling and focus groups work against old style reporting. Political reporters rely on the pseudo-science to tell them what people think instead of doing what reporters are supposed to do—talking to real people where they live, listening to their perspectives and respecting their views.

TL: How does this play out in day-to-day reporting?

WG: My sense from the way stories are written is that unless you have the “facts” of pseudo-scientific evidence, editors don’t want reporters making any observations on what they learned as reporters. This supposedly makes them more “objective,” but it does the opposite. They become more one-sided in their reporting.

TL: Doesn’t that make them more disconnected from the public?

WG: Yes. Reporters and editors are disturbed to learn that growing sectors of the public do not trust their reporting. But this is the natural result of one-sided reporting. It reflects the unconscious class bias of the media—looking up to selected expertise that’s in power and looking down on the everyday citizens. In the old days, when I started as a reporter, newspapers were far more diverse and representative in speaking to and for the variety of popular perspectives. Each newspaper might have its bias, left or right or something else, but there were countering opinions and perspectives that tended to keep the other side more honest. That variety is pretty much gone now, so lots of citizens are finding their own ways to inform themselves, putting their faith in the bloggers or other renegade sources. Who can blame them?

TL: Who are the losers in this paradigm?

WG: It’s pretty obvious. I start with the conviction that people in every station of life are not stupid. Most people are pretty capable of forming opinions and insights of their own, based on their own experiences and what they see happening around them. They don’t get everything right but—guess what—neither do the governing elites, the economists and policy wonks who tell us what is correct thinking. The financial collapse and economic breakdown are dramatic evidence of elite failure, yet I see most media reporting still relying on the same old sources as if nothing went wrong. In a functioning democracy, what the people think would be regarded as a vital source for informing democratic debate. That is what the people lose—their seat at the table.

TL: Do the losers care?

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?

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.