Click for larger image

On April 23, at the end of Fox News Channel’s “Bulls & Bears,” host Brenda Buttner provided this lead-in to Neil Cavuto’s “Cavuto on Business”: “Plus, retire rich? Forget Social Security,” followed by a voice-over from Cavuto himself declaring, “Retire rich, but not with Social Security. If you pretend it doesn’t exist, you will be better off. We’ll tell you why.”

Meantime, the text of an on-screen blurb promoted an entirely different message. That message: “WE SHOULD ELIMINATE SOCIAL SECURITY!”

Cut to the actual segment. Cavuto led off asking his five guests to discuss the question, “Should you just pretend Social Security doesn’t even exist to have a better chance of retiring rich?” While the guests began by debating various independent retirement investments, the discussion, like many cable debates, soon enough wandered off-topic, as Cavuto and a couple of his guests, Jim Rogers, president of JimRogers.com, and Dani Huges, CEO of Divine Capital Markets, pushed for private investment accounts as an alternative to Social Security, and a single guest, Gregg Hymowitz, founder of Entrust Capital, defended the current system.

Altogether, the production and promotion of Cavuto’s Social Security piece violated three creeds of journalism ethics.

Let’s start with the opening visual — the “We Should Eliminate Social Security” teaser — which violates two rules: “Don’t Adopt Partisan Talking Points As Your Own,” and the obvious, “Deliver on Your Promises.” We’ll address the former a little later, but first, the teaser: It sure makes it sound as if we’re going to get a report laying out compelling reasons to dismantle Social Security altogether. But that’s not what we get. In fact, at no point during “Cavuto on Business” did anyone advocate “eliminating” Social Security. Some of the guests advised that it’s not a good idea for anyone who can afford otherwise to “rely” solely on Social Security alone, but that’s entirely different from calling for the elimination of the program.

Fox’s next gaffe — which violates another rule, “Erect No Straw Men” — came in the opening implication that there are some people out there who apparently think the Social Security system is going to assure them of “retiring rich.” Really? Who might these people be? CJR Daily challenges Fox to find one person not certifiably insane who thinks that social welfare checks can land them in the upper brackets of the tax code.

Cavuto’s carefully constructed straw man led into the third violation, which is another breach of the “Deliver on Promises” creed. This time, however, it’s a little less explicit than not delivering on a teaser.

“Cavuto on Business” is part of the nonsensically named “Cost of Freedom” block of shows designed to offer Fox viewers investment advice. To drive home this point, Fox runs a disclaimer at the end of each show separating itself from the free suggestions.

But what investment advice could possibly stem from Cavuto’s initial question, “Should you just pretend Social Security doesn’t even exist to have a better chance of retiring rich?” You could have a conversation about how to retire rich independently of Social Security, of course, but why even bring Social Security into the discussion? What purpose does that play — unless you want to pass off thinly disguised propaganda suggesting a phase-out of Social Security as “investment advice”?

Thomas Lang

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.