Sizing up This Morning’s Social Security Coverage

Last night President Bush took an hour out of “Must See TV” to talk about his proposals on energy policy and Social Security, as well as to field some questions from the White House press corps. The White House billed the press conference as an opportunity for the president to spell out additional details of the Social Security plan he has spent the last 60 days promoting across the country.

The main development of the night — in terms of Social Security — was the president’s endorsement of the Pozen plan. In order to reduce Social Security’s long-term debt, the plan calls for benefits to be calculated by “progressive indexing,” which, as the Washington Post explains, “reduces the rate of growth of benefits for most Americans while protecting those for low-income retirees.”

Of the five major papers, the Post’s front-page story offered the most authoritative and complete summary of the Social Security changes.

Reporters Jim VandeHei and Michael A. Fletcher set the tone with a no-holds-barred lede: “President Bush called on Congress last night to curtail future Social Security benefits for all but low-income retirees in an urgent new effort to address the popular program’s shaky finances.”

Later on, they provided a longer-than-usual rebuttal to the president’s repeated assertion that the Social Security system as currently constituted will be “bankrupt” by 2041. They wrote, accurately, that “The Social Security Administration calculates that the system will deplete its reserve of Treasury bonds by 2041, after which it will be able to pay out in benefits only what it receives in taxes. But even then, benefits would be almost three-quarters what is currently promised, and considerably higher in inflation-adjusted terms than they are now. If nothing is done to Social Security, the system will be able to meet the president’s promise to ensure that all seniors receive a benefit larger than current levels.”

Too bad Richard Stevenson and Elisabeth Bumiller over at the New York Times couldn’t get an advance copy of the Post piece. They took the time, in the second paragraph of their piece, to print the president’s assertion that “the retirement program is headed for ‘bankruptcy,’” but challenged the falsehood only with an example proving the shortcomings of “he said/she-said” journalism, writing that “bankruptcy” is “a term his opponents say is an exaggeration.” Deep down in the story, they do get into details of the trust fund, but that’s hardly sufficient to counter the hedge used in their second paragraph. However, the Times piece does deserve credit for its concise explanation of the Pozen plan.

The Wall Street Journal’s contribution is also a mixed bag (subscription required). As the Post and the Times did, the Journal highlighted the president’s plan to reduce benefits in its lede. At times, though, the Journal piece, too, lapsed into a “he said/she said” account, rather than an authoritative take from the nation’s premier business paper. (It was “critics” or “Democrats,” not the reportorial authority of the Journal itself, claiming that the middle class would face a large benefit cut under the president’s plan.)

Next up is the USA Today lead story, which, in typical USA Today fashion, provided an overview of the night’s events, without getting too much into the hard details. Still, it was nice to see an explanation of the Pozen plan that touched on how each class of Americans would be affected.

The Los Angeles Times catches the bottom rung for its timid tone and for ignoring the implications of the president’s proposal for the majority of working Americans. To read the Times, one could leave the story thinking the country’s population is comprised of only the rich and the poor:

President Bush, seeking support from Democrats and moderate Republicans for an overhaul of Social Security, said Thursday that he favored changing the pension system so that benefits for low-income workers would grow faster than those for wealthy retirees.

Bush, speaking at a nationally televised news conference, said such a change “would solve most of the funding challenges facing Social Security.” He cited a proposal by a Democratic policy expert to reduce the rate of growth in benefits for wealthy workers but did not explicitly endorse the plan, saying it was up to Congress to work out the details.

Even when the Los Angeles Times gets into the details of the plan, the middle class isn’t mentioned. That being said, however, the paper does win the award for pithiest explanation of the Pozen plan:

Under Pozen’s plan, the expected increases in Social Security benefits for wealthier Americans would be reduced by changing the formula on which increases were based. Benefits are indexed to wages; Pozen would switch the benchmark to prices, which grow more slowly than wages.

No mention, however, that the middle class would also see benefits cut if a gradual switch to price indexing were to take place.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.