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!