Well, What Do You Know, Sherlock?

The media discover Social Security

Ouch! That was the media’s general reaction yesterday to the ideas in the report issued by the co-chairs of the president’s deficit commission. Had news outlets been following this story since the beginning of the year, when the commission was appointed, they would not have been surprised by what was dumped on the table. “This is the first time we got significant major media about the commission,” observed Alex Lawson, who does communications for Social Security Works, an advocacy group opposed to cutting the program. Because the ideas laid out by co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles were so drastic, the media’s ears perked up.

We looked at several national news sources, and a few regional ones, to see how they were covering the recommendations. Unsurprisingly, nobody offered the sort of informed, comprehensive reporting that Americans need if they are to understand what entitlement reform will ultimately mean for them.

The networks prominently played the story, presenting the recommendations as painful steps that nevertheless needed to be taken. “It’s got to come from somewhere,” NBC’s Brian Williams intoned. “What would you cut?” And again, later: “It’s not going to be popular but again it’s got to come from somewhere. And the question again is where would you cut?”

Other news outlets cherry-picked from among the fifty-eight cuts or tax increases contemplated by the Simpson-Bowles document. In its typical staccato style, USA Today listed a bunch of suggested savings—cutting the federal workforce by ten percent over ten years, freezing federal salaries, eliminating earmarks, cutting back Pentagon weapons purchases. This story did not mention Social Security or Medicare. It should have.

One AP story zoomed in on the recommendation that the retirement age gradually increase to sixty-nine, and that the tax break for mortgage interest was on the line. This story also noted that “better-off beneficiaries would receive smaller Social Security payments than those in lower earning brackets under the proposal.” It didn’t explain that the proposal would also open the door for means testing, which could pull “wealthier” people with political influence out of the system, thus undermining its stability. Another AP story simply said: “Under the chairmen’s proposal, Medicare spending would be curtailed.” Readers got no further explanation.

Other stories emphasized the political sphere, setting up a kind of he said/she said dynamic about the coming confrontation between liberals and conservatives. Pretty high in its piece, The New York Times reported that “liberal groups immediately condemned the plan when news of it broke, for its Social Security and Medicare changes and for the scope of the spending cuts.” A few graphs later, we learn that Republicans will challenge the notion that the budget can be balanced only by cutting spending. While the Times mentioned some of the blueprint’s particulars, its piece was essentially a political process story. A similar Los Angeles Times story noted in the third graph that the proposal was not likely to survive a congressional vote, and included quotes from politicos and advocates signaling a fight ahead.

But while there was plenty of reporting on the political consequences of the Simspon/Bowles recommendations, there wasn’t much reporting on what they will mean for vulnerable Americans. Perhaps that’s okay for a first day story. But we might have thought that at least the Florida papers would have been first out of the box telling their older readers how they are really going to feel the pinch, lending credence to the fears about Medicare they expressed in last week’s election. As far as we can tell, they didn’t. Instead, the day the report came out, the Miami Herald, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and the St. Petersburg Times ran an AP story; the South Florida Sun-Sentinel went with the Los Angeles Times piece that went out on the Tribune wire. We know that times are tough and that newsrooms have been cut to the bone. But this is one national story that needs to be localized.

Under a section called “mandatory budget options,” the co-chairs propose to “expand cost-sharing in Medicare to promote informed consumer health choices and spending.” What that means is that seniors will pay more out-of-pocket for their medical care. Simpson and Bowles want to reduce the benefits on the Medigap plans that most seniors buy to help fill the holes in their Medicare benefits. The Medigap plans will cover less, and seniors will have to pay more. As Campaign Desk has pointed out, health reform will already raise the cost of certain Medigap plans. Florida seniors need to read about this stuff from their local papers.

Simpson and Bowles also propose to limit the amount of catastrophic expenses Medicare will pay for. But didn’t the health reform law just eliminate caps for catastrophic expenses? No annual or lifetime limits on coverage, remember? Apparently what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander.

There was something for everyone in the proposals to like or not like—even the idea of resurrecting the public plan option, which was killed off during health reform. Now you know how far that’s going to get. But many of Simpson and Bowles’s ideas will gain traction on the Hill.

If this story stays in Washington, the public loses. These are not issues for the political elites or the K Street gang to decide. The media must make the connection between what’s being discussed in Washington and what that means for the rest of the country. What will these proposed changes do for the family struggling to make a mortgage payment that finds their mortgage interest deduction trimmed back? Or the unemployed man in his fifties with bleak employment prospects now realizing that he must come up with more money for his later years, since he won’t be able to collect Social Security benefits as early as he thought? Or the widow living on a $13,000 average annual Social Security benefit who won’t get a cost-of-living increase to pay for the higher out-of-pocket medical costs Simpson and Bowles have in mind?

Answering these questions calls for some serious dot-connecting—a journalistic tool underused in the Medicare/Social Security conversation.

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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: , , , ,