Who Will Tell the People?

Social Security is the third rail for the MSM

Ohio congressman John Boehner’s recent interview in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review touched on all the red hot stones—health care, BP, Afghanistan, and financial reform legislation, which he likened to “killing an ant with a nuclear weapon.” That remark made the president hopping mad, and it got a lot of press. Boehner’s startling comments about Social Security—explicit and to the point—generated far less media excitement.

In the interview, Boehner announced that paying for the Afghanistan war will require reforming the entitlement system, a point his aides later said he did not make. He also favored increasing the retirement age to seventy for people who have at least twenty years to go until retirement; tying cost-of-living increases to the consumer price index instead of wage inflation, which gives a higher benefit than the CPI; and limiting payments to those who need them. Means-testing, in other words. The congressman explained:

We need to look at the American people and explain to them that we’re broke. If you have substantial non-Social Security income while you’re retired, why are we paying you at a time when we’re broke? We just need to be honest with people.

Indeed we do, and when it comes to Social Security, the MSM, where most Americans still get their news, have been MIA. You could almost say that Social Security has become the MSM’s third rail. For the most part, nobody wants to touch it.

In this case, along with the predictable blogs from the left and right, a sprinkling of MSM picked up Boehner’s comments—Fox News, USA Today, KMOV-TV in St. Louis, which offered viewers a poll to see what they thought of raising the retirement age, and some MSM political blogs, like The Swamp, published by the Chicago Tribune and other Tribune Company papers. There, blogger Mike Memoli briefly mentioned the proposal to raise the retirement age and went on to say “But the “ant” remark has been driving Democrats’ attacks.” In other words, Boehner’s comments about Social Security did not rise to the interest level of ants being nuked, at least in the minds of the media.

It has been this way all year, ever since Obama established his deficit commission in January, thus raising the stakes for Social Security. The MSM’s treatment of the program is all the more puzzling since any changes the commission brings forth will be far more important to most Americans than health reform ever was or will be. A vigorous public discussion has yet to take place, and the commentary so far has been framed mostly by one side of the issue—the deficit hawks, privatizers, and Peter G. Peterson acolytes who believe Social Security (and other entitlements) are causing the deficits. (Disclosure: Peterson is a CJR funder.) It’s eerily reminiscent of press coverage of health reform, which locked out any proposals other than the ones being pushed by Washington’s health care cognoscenti.

So far, framers of the Social Security narrative have focused on its role in federal budget deficits, not on whether Social Security monthly payments, which average about $1380 for a sixty-five-year-old retiring this year, assure an adequate retirement income; why so many Americans are taking benefits at age sixty-two, even though that might hurt them in the long run; or what happens to private 401(k) savings when stock market declines wipe out their value on the eve of retirement. The average amount in a 401(k) plan, fast becoming the bedrock of American retirement, is $71,000. That would yield a grand total of about $444 a month for a sixty-five-year-old man living in New York who annuitizes that sum this year. A woman would get about $411. That’s not much to live on.

A good story in the AARP Bulletin told of two people in their early sixties forced to take Social Security benefits before full benefits kicked in because they had lost their jobs and needed the money. A sixty-three-year-old woman named Jan Gissel said she was certain she couldn’t get another job so “I’m taking my Social Security, but I need more money than that to make it.” Sixty-one-year-old Steve Stanislowsky, whose retirement plans crumbled when he lost his job, will do the same. “I’m very worried about running out of money,” he said.

There has been little exploration of the secrecy that surrounds some of the deficit commission’s work. When Hillary Clinton held similarly secret meetings to craft her health care proposals in 1993-94, the press cried foul, and continued to do so when Clinton ran for president two years ago. The secrecy surrounding her work often passed for context in campaign stories. Even Alan Simpson’s derogatory comments about the “lesser people” didn’t make prime time, and vanished after a few days.

Instead of exploring these kinds of stories, or giving helpful primers on how Social Security really relates to the deficit and how different reform options will affect different people, the MSM have repeated the mantra of a broken system and simply passed along the notion that the system is bankrupt and broken, as the Tribune-Review did when it reported Boehner’s comments, or “projected to run out of money” as an otherwise reasonably good AP story did.

Another AP story, a business analysis, offered this dire prediction in the first two graphs: While may people don’t want to pay higher taxes or see benefit cuts, “the results of inaction on the steadily growing debt threat are even more costly: fundamental damage to the U.S. economy and a lower standard of living for future generations.” There was no mention how real people would fare under different options for making the minor fixes most experts will agree will keep the system in good shape well into the future, or of the real consequences that entitlement reform likely holds in store for them.

In January, CNN abandoned any semblance of balance by airing a live event special centering around what CNN called the “critically acclaimed documentary I.O.U.S.A.,” a movie that was sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. A panel of experts, including Peterson and David Walker, who heads his foundation, gave additional commentary.

In June, Marketplace captured the current tone of Social Security reportage with a sophomoric and misleading segment that even some of viewers objected to. The show’s host, Tess Vigeland, opined that “Social Security is in such a sorry state.” Money expert Kathy Kristof, from CBS Market Watch, reinforced that notion when she said the program was “in bad shape,” adding that it is still paying payments to people and can pay into the future, an acknowledgment that the system has a $2.5 trillion surplus. Social Security actuaries and CBO number crunchers say that’s enough to pay full benefits until 2037 or 2039, depending on who’s doing the crunching.

When Vigeland said she was in her forties and didn’t expect Social Security to be there for her, Kristof pretty much told her not to worry about it because the program will increasingly go to a means test. Kristof predicted: “They will raise the retirement age and they should,” explaining that the average person used to die at sixty-five; now people live another twenty years, and paying for them during that time is too much for our children to shoulder. But as Campaign Desk has noted, longevity gains are not equally distributed throughout the population. Marketplace made it sound oh so simple—and silly. Its listeners deserved better.

The press has missed the mark before on Social Security. In 1995, when reducing entitlements and privatizing the system were on the minds of the pols, Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, and Robert Y. Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia, conducted an exhaustive examination of the program’s media coverage. They found, as is the case today, that the news media focused on the problems of the system and crowded out stories about the system’s strengths and stability. Furthermore, the study suggested that the media turned to sources who could be expected to be critical of Social Security rather than people who support the program who could provide balance. Shapiro said at the time:

The media have delivered a consistent message to the public: Social Security is very difficult to sustain without constant doctoring and that is not a correct assessment of the program’s status.

Jacobs and Northwestern professor Benjamin Page recently examined some of the central findings of years of polling data, and looked at “deliberative forums” like the one America Speaks held a few weeks ago, sponsored partially by the Peterson Foundation. They discovered that support for Social Security is strong and widespread, and that “many more Americans want to increase spending on Social Security than want to decrease it, and that has been true for decades.” As for the deficit, Jacobs and Page found that its “perceived importance may be exaggerated.” They noted that answers to a question asking about the “most important problem” depend on whatever is being emphasized by the media. Many survey respondents may interpret such a question as asking what other people consider important and they look to the media for evidence. One-sided framing comes full circle. Media—take note!

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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.