USA Today’s Mixed-Up Message

What exactly did the deficit commission do?

On Friday, USA Today reported that the president’s fiscal commission “approved a plan today to cut federal deficits by $3.9 trillion over the next decade, providing momentum for future spending cuts and tax increases but falling short of the super-majority needed to prompt immediate congressional action.”

The story’s lede conveyed that the commission had “approved” the package of budget cuts and tax increases it proposed at the end of last month. But a fact check is in order here. The executive order of the president establishing the eighteen member commission said that the commission “shall vote on approval of a final report containing a set of recommendations” and that “the issuance of a final report of the Commission shall require the approval of not less than 14 of the 18 members of the Commission.”

If fourteen commission members approved, then Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had agreed Congress would consider the recommendations in the lame duck session of Congress now underway. Reid said he would bring the proposals to the floor for an up or down vote; if the package passed, Pelosi would do the same. “The agreements were never confirmed or denied, as far as I know, said Nancy Altman, a co-director of the advocacy group Social Security Works. “But the agreements are academic, since fourteen votes were not received.” Only eleven members voted in favor of the package.

Nevertheless, USA Today continued its upbeat spin on the commission vote:

The bipartisan 11-7 vote was a pleasant surprise for those advocating tough measures against the mounting $13.7 trillion national debt, even in the face of opposition from liberal and seniors’ groups opposed to Medicare and Social Security cuts and conservatives opposed to raising taxes.

In the fourteenth paragraph, readers learned that it will be up to Obama and congressional leaders to deal with what the paper called “far-reaching recommendations,” but no action was required because of the failure to reach fourteen votes. The paper reported that congressional leaders “vowed to move forward in an effort to reduce unprecedented levels of red ink.” Fact check again: deficits were higher during World War II. In 1943, the deficit as a proportion of GDP was more than three times higher than it is now.

Even though the vote fell short, USA Today let readers know there was strong support for the commission’s recommendations. Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican who was one of the eleven who voted yes, said “the fact that we did not hit 14 should not be an indication that there is not powerful support behind this plan.” Then the paper reported: “As evidence of the growing support,” Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat, released a letter of support signed by fourteen Democrats.

A bit of balanced reporting would have been helpful here. Readers might have been interested in knowing that, in mid-October, 137 members of Congress sent a letter to the president saying that they opposed any cuts to Social Security, including raising the retirement age and privatizing any part of the system.

By now, we’re kind of used to lopsided reporting on this subject. USA Today has joined the crowd.

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

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Trudy Lieberman is 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. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , ,