Following last week’s release of the Social Security Trustees report, immediate coverage, in particular an AP article, erroneously hyped the acceleration, by one year, of two doomsday numbers involving the finances of Social Security. The projected year in which Social Security will begin drawing on the program’s trust fund was moved ahead from 2018 to 2017. The year in which the trust fund is projected to be depleted moved ahead from 2042 to 2041.

The press played this as an indication that Social Security’s finances were worsening. Never mind that one year on a 75-year timeline is not much of a change at all. Never mind that the same report explicitly stated that the long-term outlook improved, albeit slightly, from the previous year’s report.

Given the prominent play these numbers received, and more significantly, the idea that Social Security’s finances had worsened, CJR Daily expected to see errors replicated daily in the weeks following the report’s release.

But, mirabile dictu, aside from the editorial pages these errors for the most part stayed out of newspaper columns, broadcasts and cable reports. (Of course, 2017 and 2041 are cited, as they should be, but not in the context that the system’s finances are worsening.)

That was, of course, until this morning, when CNN broke the streak.

Here are a couple of examples:

On CNN’s “American Morning,” Kelly Wallace delivered this report: “News now about President Bush. He is touting his Social Security reforms in the Midwest. The president is set to speak at a forum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, later today. And he is armed with some new numbers on Social Security. A trustees’ report last week estimated the program will start losing money in 2017, a year earlier than previously thought.” (Italics added.)

And how about CNN’s Headline News an hour or so after Wallace’s report? It offered this account: “President Bush is armed with new numbers in his push for Social Security reform. He’s headed to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, today to pitch a report showing the system’s balance sheet is worsening and something has to be done.”

To recap, what CNN’s viewers learned early this morning as they were stumbling around the house trying not to spill their coffee on their bare feet was:

1. It was initially thought that Social Security’s outlays would exceed its revenues in 2018, but now that year has been moved ahead to 2017.
2. That means Social Security’s finances are worsening.

In truth, as the report itself notes, it means nothing of the sort. The problem, of course, is that in this case (and in most others) TV reporters seldom read “the report itself.”

But the fact remains, if those reporters leave the viewer with the impression that the report unconditionally supports the president’s assertion that the Social Security system’s finances are worsening, they’re deluding their viewers.

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: Staying home and keeping your mouth shut would be more of a public service than that.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.