“Shut Up - and Thank You!”

We’re a little late on this one, but it epitomizes a common problem with cable news coverage of the Social Security issue so we thought we’d share.

This past Wednesday morning on “CNN Daybreak,” Kelly Wallace conducted an interview with Ridge Multop, a senior legislative representative (translation: lobbyist) for AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons. Multop’s appearance, explained Wallace, served to balance an interview on the show from the previous week that had featured a “policy expert who supports the president’s plan.”

The segment led off with a video clip from President Bush’s economic town-hall style event from this past Tuesday. Bush said:

By the time today’s workers who are in their mid-20s begin to retire, the system will be bankrupt. So if you’re 20 years old and in your mid-20s 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.

As CJR Daily pointed out on Wednesday, this statement is not factually accurate. CBS MarketWatch’s Rex Nutting noted, “The Social Security system cannot go ‘bankrupt,’ for it has no creditors. By law, the trustees will continue to pay reduced benefits even if the trust fund is exhausted. Payroll taxes will continue to come in and benefits will continue to be paid.” But, as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times had before her, Wallace let Bush’s suspect rhetoric pass without substantive comment. (She did, however, find time to quip, “Some tough words from President Bush about Social Security.”)

But that’s hardly the worst part of the segment.

Let’s take a look at a portion of the brief exchange between Wallace and Multop.

Wallace: But here is the question, though. Doesn’t something ultimately need to be done or shouldn’t something be done [about Social Security]? Again, you have those supporters of the president’s plan saying look, if you have younger people investing just about $2,000 of their Social Security fund into the stock market, they could earn a greater benefit than the promised benefit.

Why is that such a bad idea?

Multop began to answer:

Multop: Well, I think you have to separate out the idea of private accounts from the long-term strength and solvency of Social Security. AARP recognizes that we have got to do something. You know, anybody who looks at it, you know, says yes, we have a serious long-term challenge.

Clearly Multop is trying to turn the topic back on its head by explaining the problem with Social Security. Without understanding the problem, you can’t understand how private accounts might play into the problem.

Wallace, faced with the possibility of nuance, cut Multop short and pushed him back toward conflict.

Wallace: But Mr. Multop, let me — let’s stay on the issue of the privatization and private accounts.

Multop: Yes?

Wallace: Why would AARP be so against these private accounts?

Multop: Well, because the private accounts actually weaken the system because the way the president seems to be proposing them — now, I have to say, we — no one knows exactly what his proposal is yet. The proposals that we’ve seen, the kind of things they’ve talked about take money out of the system that would otherwise go to pay benefits. According to the Congressional Budget Office, that would be $2 trillion in the first 10 years.

So our concern, and our members’ concern, is where does that money come from?

Alright, so now we’re getting somewhere. Two trillion dollars seems like a lot. Wonder how that plays into Social Security’s long-term solvency?

Answered Wallace, “[T]here’s so much here and we’re barely scratching the surface. But we’re out of time.” End of interview.

This makes one wonder: Why bother having this segment and inviting Multop on the show?

All we’ve learned are two things that we already know too well. First, if a politician crafts a catchy sound bite CNN will play it regardless of its veracity. Second, cable news loves conflict, so much so that its anchors will cut off someone who’s about to say something useful — especially if it’s already gotten the expert to say X is bad because last week’s guest said X is good.

After CNN’s new boss, Jonathan Klein, has accomplished his stated goal of rooting out gratuitous coverage of sensational but pointless murder trials, he might want to take a shot at a harder nut to crack — rooting out poor coverage of important national debates.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.