The making of a meme

Journos get on board the Let’s-Whack-Entitlements train

Shortly after the election, the MSM quickly turned from the presidential horse race to the “fiscal cliff.” And soon, news outlets began passing along what has become conventional political wisdom in the Beltway—that something must be done about the deficit, and fast, and that cutting entitlements, namely Social Security and Medicare, must be part of any deficit-reduction package. Hardly a day goes by when someone paying attention would not hear this meme repeated in the press. What they usually don’t hear enough of, though, is how contemplated cuts might affect ordinary people and what the alternatives might be.

The NewsHour weighed in two days after the election with an interview featuring Mark Bertolini, Aetna’s CEO, who told Judy Woodruff that going off the fiscal cliff would result in negative GDP the first quarter. After some talk about how Aetna is “gating” its investments and “pulling back on employment” as a result of fiscal-cliff uncertainty, Bertolini said, “No matter how you do the arithmetic, we have to raise revenue and we have to deal with entitlement programs.” There were no other guests on this show, so Bertolini pretty much had his say, with viewers getting the impression fixing the deficit and cutting entitlements were urgent.

Bertolini is one of the early organizers of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a group set up by Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming senator, and Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton chief of staff, who together headed the president’s deficit commission and authored the Simpson-Bowles report—policy prescriptions for cutting the deficit and entitlements. CEOs have been making the media rounds, delivering their urgent message, as Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein did when he told CBS that people have to lower their expectations about entitlements, because “they’re not going to get them.” No pushback followed from the CBS anchor, Scott Pelley.

Meanwhile The Washington Post, which has helped shape elite media coverage on the deficit and entitlements, continued a vein of reporting that at times seems to blur the distinction between news and op-eds. The Post’s Lori Montgomery and her colleague Zachary Goldfarb gave a sense of urgency to fixing the deficit writing: “With another dangerous deadline for the economy approaching, Tuesday’s election returned to power the same men who have battled for two years over the nation’s budget problems.” That was a straightforward piece, but a few days later, Montgomery lionized Simpson and Bowles, who two years ago, she wrote, “rolled out a startling plan to dig the nation out of debt.” Even though lawmakers recoiled from the blunt prescriptions, she continued, “their plan as been heralded by both parties as a model of clear-eyed sacrifice, and policy makers say the moment has come to live up to its promise.” The press often refers to the Simpson-Bowles plan as a blueprint or a starting point for fixing the deficit and entitlements, as do many of the sources they choose to consult. Bertolini, for example, told Woodruff that “the Simpson-Bowles framework is perfect to build off of.”

Speaking of sourcing, Politico weighed in this week with a meme-building “Behind the Curtain” column. Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen reported on the “clear takeaway” they said they heard in private and other conversations about what the economy needs, with “top lawmakers, officials, their senior aides and the CEOs who advise and lobby all of them.”

This is a group, it should be noticed, particularly quick to agree with policies that devolve to its own self-interest. And as Jonathan Chait notes in a withering piece in New York magazine’s Daily Intel section,

“Even more remarkable is the approach Politico’s editors take toward the consensus. They have on their hands the most ripe material for a scathing exposé of a chummy, self-interested business-political elite. VandeHei and Allen, by contrast, understand their role here not as exposing the insider nexus but as uncritically transmitting its point of view.

And for entitlements, that point of view is: shrink ‘em.

Kennth Griffin, the founder of a $3 billion hedge fund, tells VandeHei and Allen that “the critical problem is entitlement reform.” He doesn’t mention income inequality, oddly. The reporters go on to write:

Nearly every lawmaker and staffer will tell you privately that they know the Social Security retirement age needs to go up, the rate of growth of benefits needs to be slowed on a sliding scale that protects the poor, the cap on income subjected to the tax that finances the program needs to rise and the rich should get smaller or no payout from the program.

The meme continues to roll through the media. When Simpson gave a speech in New York to a group called The Common Good, CNNMoney gave a rundown of what he said, beckoning readers with this alarmist headline “Alan Simpson paints dire market outlook.”

Sometimes the meme takes the form of getting the pols on board with need for a quick fix. An editorial in USA Today challenged the Democrats to be brave and cut entitlements. “How exactly do Democrats expect Republicans to bend on their destructive refusal to raise taxes if Democrats won’t bend on their destructive refusal to trim unsustainable benefit programs,” the editorial argued. Even the reliably moderate Eleanor Clift seemed to be on board, writing in The Daily Beast that the president faces a daunting challenge “to convince liberal groups that they too will have to yield.”

In recent weeks, pushback against the urgency to fix the deficit and cut entitlements has come from the AARP, an organization of some 35 million seniors. Through TV ads, the group is challenging the wisdom of raising the Medicare eligibility age and changing the COLA formula for Social Security benefits, while arguing that Social Security should be omitted from a “last minute budget deal.” The Washington Post attacked AARP’s credibility a year ago, in an editorial
and did so again last week in a news story that quoted—or misquoted—a leading Medicare expert, leaving an incorrect impression about Medicare cuts.

Post reporter Jerry Markon, whose beat is political accountability, penned a piece that looked at AARP’s business interests, notably selling Medigap insurance. The media have examined AARP’s businesses before during periods when some lawmakers feared the organization would block their bills, so Markon’s piece hardly broke new ground. He was trying to make the case that any changes in Medigap policies—which people buy to cover Medicare’s benefit holes—that shift more costs to seniors would lower premiums because they wouldn’t have to cover as much. That in turn, he reasoned, would lower AARP’s revenue.

Among the people he interviewed was Marilyn Moon, a former Medicare trustee and a longtime board member of an advocacy group, the Medicare Rights Center, who once worked at the AARP. The Post quoted her saying: “Any way you look at changes in Medigap that people are talking about, I think it’s good for beneficiaries, and anybody who is opposing that who claims they are looking out for beneficiaries, you have to wonder why.” But Moon says she wasn’t talking about Medigap; she was talking about changes to Medicare.

Moon told me, “He twisted my remarks about benefit improvements and equated them with proposed changes in Medigap policies.” Moon protested in an email to Markon that she shared with CJR. There are a lot of changes being proposed to Medigap that would be “very bad for beneficiaries,” she said in the email. “I deeply regret that you did not understand the distinction.”

If you are going to push a meme, maybe you should get the details right.

Follow our coverage of the coverage of politics and policy on Twitter @CJRSwingStates. And follow the author @Trudy_Lieberman.

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Trudy Lieberman is 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. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , ,