What was he talking about? Bolduan didn’t pin him down. Had she done so, she could have told viewers that the payroll tax cap—the amount of tax they pay to fund Medicare’s hospital benefits—was lifted ages ago. What King may have meant was the Social Security wage base on which payroll taxes are levied. That amount this year is $113,700. Given how confused Americans, including Medicare beneficiaries, are about how the program actually works, this kind of misstatement is hardly trivial. Some homework was in order. The logical follow-up question: Was King supporting lifting Social Security’s payroll cap? Some people—those who oppose Social Security benefit cuts by changing the way the cost of living formula is calculated—say raising the amount of wages subject to Social Security taxes fixes the system’s projected shortfall in a way that doesn’t hurt beneficiaries, especially those who rely on Social Security for most or all of their income.

King did mention one Medicare fix that figures prominently in solutions to Medicare’s fiscal troubles down the road. “There may be some means testing for wealthier Medicare recipients,” he said. There’s a lot more to that one, too, that Bolduan skipped over. Instead of offering any explanation about who might be affected by such a change, she simply said: “That’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for many Americans, you know.”

“Absolutely,” King replied. “But we’re in a swamp here, and we got to start getting to alligators aside.” Ah, the folksy sound bite!

All in all, King and Bolduan were signaling to Beltway types in the know rather than helping viewers through the morass of claims and counterclaims about Medicare and Social Security. And that brings me back to Canada. Many people I’ve met here said they learned nothing about what Obamacare is and is not from the US network news broadcasts they had watched. But when they tuned in to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, they got a better understanding of the health reform law. Will it take satire to help Americans understand what could happen to Medicare and Social Security in the unfolding budget negotiations?



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Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.