Misled by What’s Missing, Not by What Isn’t

When she was in elementary school, someone lied to little Rachel Brock.

Want proof? Have a look at this piece in Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger. It’s about President Bush’s visit to Canton, Mississippi, to sell his Social Security plan. Toward the beginning of the piece, we learn the following:

Bush said it’s estimated, if something isn’t changed, the Social Security system will be in the red in 2017 and bankrupt by 2041.

As we’ve told you before, that’s not correct — even if the current system is not changed at all, in 2041 Social Security will still be able to pay out about three-quarters of benefits due. It won’t be bankrupt. (Not that the Clarion-Ledger bothered to provide that exceedingly relevant information to its readers — an omission that it shares, alas, with countless newspapers in cities Bush has visited on his PR tour.)

But we digress. Back to Rachel Brock. Here’s the Clarion-Ledger’s lede:

Rachel Brock learned about Social Security while in elementary school.

She also was told there wouldn’t be any money available in the federal retirement program by the time she retired.

“I was just under the assumption I would never see it,” said Brock, an industrial engineer at Nissan Motor Co.’s assembly plant in Canton.

Brock, 26, was among 2,200 Nissan employees that listened Tuesday as President Bush laid out his reasons for reforming Social Security.

OK. So little Rachel learned in grade school that she’d never get any money from Social Security. If Brock is now 26, and she waits until full retirement age to start receiving monthly Social Security checks, the year will be 2046 and she will be 67. True, if the system is not altered between now and then, Social Security will be in the uncomfortable position of taking in a little less than 75 cents for every dollar due to be paid out to retirees. So each month, the system would go further into debt, or the now-retired Rachel would only get three-quarters of what she assumed she would. But that’s not the same as saying there won’t be any money available in the federal retirement program by the time Rachel Brock retires. In fact, money will still be pouring in every week from payroll deductions. Upshot: Rachel was lied to as a child. Just as she was essentially lied to by the president yesterday, when she was told the system would be “bankrupt” in 2041.

A lot of people are lying to poor Rachel. It makes us sad.

And the Clarion-Ledger isn’t helping — it printed both falsehoods without correction, in effect spreading them to a wider audience.

The rest of the piece isn’t bad, but these are real transgressions on the part of the Clarion-Ledger — reporters have a responsibility to check the facts behind the claims that they pass along to readers, whether they come from a president or from a young woman’s elementary-school memories.

Here’s hoping Rachel never mentions to anyone at the Clarion-Ledger what she was told at age six about the Easter bunny.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.