Simpson and other advocates for reform talked a lot about the need to save Social Security for their grandchildren. “Erskine [Erskine Bowles, the commission’s co-chair] and I are in this one for our grandchildren,” Simpson said. “Somebody said they’re stalking-horses for taxes. I’m not a stalking horse for taxes. I’m a stalking horse for my grandchildren.” If the retirement income of future generations were the issue, we should have gotten critical analysis from the media about the looming crisis in retirement income. How do skimpy personal savings and the decline of good employer-sponsored pension plans mesh with cuts to Social Security? Never mind the grandchildren. About half of American households are at risk for being unable to maintain their pre-retirement income. News outlets, however, were more interested in the deficit crisis as defined by a narrow group of economic experts.
It wasn’t until much later—closer to the mid-term election, when candidates revealed their positions on Social Security—did stories began showing up on local news broadcasts. It’s fair to ask if the electorate understood enough about what was at stake to evaluate what the pols were saying on TV. Stories also appeared in local newspapers like The Bristol Press in Connecticut and The News-Gazette, which serves central Illinois. Those stories reported on grassroots pushback to the deficit commission proposals from a group called the Alliance for Retired Americans, and were notable because they offered new voices to the discussion.
As they did with health care, the media played follow the leader, waiting for newsmakers to make news. Alan Simpson and his deficit commission were making the news that was informing elite opinion. Other proposals came late—perhaps too late for the media. In late November, shortly before the deficit commission’s report was due, a group called the Citizens’ Commission on Jobs, Deficits and America’s Economic Future—composed of well-known experts and civic leaders—released its own set of proposals challenging those of the deficit commission. The group’s press release called the commission’s proposals “fundamentally misguided.” The group got some coverage, but conventional wisdom about changes for Social Security had already emerged.
This is not the first time the press has flubbed in covering Social Security. In the mid-1990s, the National Academy of Social Insurance commissioned a study by two well-known academics who examined coverage by major media outlets between 1977 and 1994. Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota and Robert Y. Shapiro of Columbia concluded that the media have delivered “a consistent message” to the public: “Social Security is very difficult to sustain without constant doctoring.” That is not a correct assessment of the program’s status, they said. Their study also found that the media turn to sources who might be expected to be critical of Social Security rather than people who support the program, who themselves could provide balance.
Sound familiar? Yale professor emeritus Theodore Marmor once told me: “Social insurance programs in the U.S. are widely popular in a superficial way. You have popularity without understanding.” The media bear much responsibility for this.
For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform, click here.