Cato also targeted the media big time, and began to cast doubt on Social Security in the minds of reporters and editors through information breakfasts and gobs of materials designed to sow the seeds that privatization was the makeover needed to save a broken system. For the most part, the press bought in, I reported in The Nation in early 1997. So many anti-Social Security stories were appearing, I wrote, that the AFL-CIO and the AARP held their own media briefings. The AFL-CIO’s Gerald Shea told me that he and his colleagues discovered that journalists had a deep cynicism about Social Security and “took it personally that they couldn’t keep their own money.” Perhaps the seeds sown by Cato are now bearing fruit as seen in the absence of serious, in-depth reporting on Social Security that Campaign Desk has observed. The long-term strategy to change public opinion that Mayer noted seems to be paying off.

Citizens for a Sound Economy, too, was active in the privatization drive with its own portfolio of projects. At the time, I reported that privatizers were “engaging in one of the most concerted, sophisticated and deceptive sales campaigns in recent times.” Leila Bate, who was then in charge of tax and budget policy for Citizens for a Sound Economy, said that the think tank planned to spend “millions” on the privatization effort. “Unless your average American buys into this, the best-laid plans have no chance of success,” she said.

As good as Mayer’s story is, it would have been that much better had it connected the dots between Social Security, Cato, and Citizens for a Sound Economy, and placed the Koch brothers and the activities of those organizations in the context of this latest round of attacks on Social Security. Average Americans may be starting to buy into privatization and other changes to Social Security. They need to know where all these ideas came from.

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.