When the president signed the tax bill Friday, a year’s worth of efforts aimed at modifying Social Security came to an end—at least for now. Obama’s signature was an early Christmas present to those who propose fixing the system in ways many Social Security experts say could hurt recipients in the future. The Obama-Republican compromise grants a payroll tax holiday that reduces the contributions paid by workers by two percentage points for 2011 and, ironically, aggravates a shortfall that budget hawks on the president’s now-defunct deficit commission have screamed about all year.

When the commission disbanded on December 3, eleven of its eighteen members had voted to cut Social Security benefits and make technical changes in the benefit formula that would reduce the amount of money workers would eventually receive, including cost-of-living increases for all beneficiaries beginning in 2012. “The public needs to recognize that there is a serious effort underfoot to dismantle Social Security,” says Eric Kingson, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of 250 organizations—including labor unions, civil rights groups, and women’s groups—that takes a different view of what needs to be done to Social Security.

Kingson’s coalition has struggled all year to inject that view into the MSM. When they were quoted, journalists often described them as “defenders” of the country’s most successful social program, implying that, as defenders, they are seeking to hold onto something that’s outdated and unworkable. In the last couple of weeks, the press has finally noticed what they have to say. Kingson’s co-chair Nancy Altman appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, arguing that once a tax cut is in place, it’s hard to repeal it. “All of a sudden Social Security’s shortfall, which is very manageable at this point, would actually double,” she said. It’s hard to say whether the press was finally paying attention to concerns and seeing what veteran Washington journalist Tom Bethell has called “an opening wedge in a new effort to change the face of Social Security,” or whether it was atoning for a year’s worth of lopsided reporting.

It’s reasonable for people to debate the merits of ways to slice the deficit or to fix Social Security’s shortfall, but it is not reasonable for the press to serve up one-sided, shallow reporting, which has been the norm from too many news outlets. As Social Security expert Alicia Munnell told Campaign Desk in late October: “We haven’t really had a debate.” And yet, a few weeks later, a headline in The Washington Post announced “Consensus is forming on what steps to take in cutting the deficit.” A consensus of elites, maybe, but not necessarily of the general public, who indicated in poll after poll they do not want to cut Social Security to reduce the deficit or achieve the long-term fiscal balance in the Social Security trust funds.

But stories asking what the public thinks or probing how ordinary citizens will be helped or hurt by proposed changes have been absent this year. CNN aired segments about why people take early retirement benefits, but stories like that were rare. That omission prompted me to travel to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and report in our series, “Social Security in the Heartland,” how people would fare in a different kind of system. In my admittedly unscientific sample, no one was in favor of the changes advocated by political elites and the press. One businessman who called himself a conservative and favors privatization did not like raising the retirement age because he said it would hurt some people financially. “It’s a violation of the original contract. I should get what the system was set up to give me,” he explained.

From the beginning of the deficit commission’s work early last year, the press passed along comments, even offensive ones, from co-chair Alan Simpson, famous for saying “this country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security and Medicare,” and “we’re trying to take care of the lesser people in society,” and likening Social Security to “a milk cow with 310 million tits.” The president did not fire Simpson, and so his comments set the premise for the public discourse that followed.

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.