Lion Eats Daniel

Straying from her regular beat — always a dangerous practice — New York Times White House reporter Elisabeth Bumiller this morning tackled a piece on the administration’s proposal to overhaul Social Security.

It didn’t turn out well.

Let’s start from the top. In the second paragraph, Bumiller quotes President Bush arguing, “If you’re 20 years old, in your mid-20’s, and you’re beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now.”

Unfortunately for Bumiller, the president’s hypothetical turns out to bear no relation to reality. I’ll volunteer as a guinea pig to test the president’s construction: If I retire at age 67, it will be in the year 2048. If the Congressional Budget Office is correct, that will still be four years before the Social Security system finds itself with less money than it is required to pay out. (By contrast, the Social Security program’s actuaries estimate that by 2042 the system will only be able to pay out around 70 percent of promised benefits.) In either case, the Social Security system will be far from “flat bust” or “bankrupt.”

Bumiller handles these uncomfortable facts deeper in the story, writing, “Even without changes, Mr. Bush’s critics say, the system would be able to pay three-quarters of promised benefits four decades from now, when baby boomers have long retired.” (Italics added.)

As we just pointed out, the system will be able to pay three-quarters of promised benefits four decades from now. This is fact, not conjecture, and not tenuous political rhetoric. But instead of laying it out as fact, Bumiller hides behind the coattails of “Mr. Bush’s critics.”

Here, we call it “reportorial authority,” and it doesn’t require finding unnamed “critics” to hide behind. In this case, it requires nothing more than going to nonpartisan sources like the CBO, or Social Security’s actuaries, to ascertain the veracity of a provocative statement uttered by a partisan.

Now, if the president hadn’t made it abundantly clear over the past month that he was embarking on a huge PR blitz to sell the idea that Social Security is in crisis and action must be taken now, then Bumiller might have an excuse for getting caught off guard. But, as she herself acknowledges later on in the piece, “[t]he event was part of an intensified White House campaign to promote Mr. Bush’s Social Security proposals this month.”

So, given that he has identified himself as a pitchman on this issue, doesn’t it make sense to fact-check every word that comes out of the president’s mouth on the subject of Social Security? If Bumiller wants to walk into the lion’s den, she ought to gird herself beforehand with the armor of facts — because it’s lunchtime, and the lion has already announced that he is hungry.

Thomas Lang

Correction: This post has been changed to correctly reflect the author’s retirement age.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.