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Social Security Under Attack

What the press had to say
December 20, 2010

When the president signed the tax bill Friday, a year’s worth of efforts aimed at modifying Social Security came to an end—at least for now. Obama’s signature was an early Christmas present to those who propose fixing the system in ways many Social Security experts say could hurt recipients in the future. The Obama-Republican compromise grants a payroll tax holiday that reduces the contributions paid by workers by two percentage points for 2011 and, ironically, aggravates a shortfall that budget hawks on the president’s now-defunct deficit commission have screamed about all year.

When the commission disbanded on December 3, eleven of its eighteen members had voted to cut Social Security benefits and make technical changes in the benefit formula that would reduce the amount of money workers would eventually receive, including cost-of-living increases for all beneficiaries beginning in 2012. “The public needs to recognize that there is a serious effort underfoot to dismantle Social Security,” says Eric Kingson, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of 250 organizations—including labor unions, civil rights groups, and women’s groups—that takes a different view of what needs to be done to Social Security.

Kingson’s coalition has struggled all year to inject that view into the MSM. When they were quoted, journalists often described them as “defenders” of the country’s most successful social program, implying that, as defenders, they are seeking to hold onto something that’s outdated and unworkable. In the last couple of weeks, the press has finally noticed what they have to say. Kingson’s co-chair Nancy Altman appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, arguing that once a tax cut is in place, it’s hard to repeal it. “All of a sudden Social Security’s shortfall, which is very manageable at this point, would actually double,” she said. It’s hard to say whether the press was finally paying attention to concerns and seeing what veteran Washington journalist Tom Bethell has called “an opening wedge in a new effort to change the face of Social Security,” or whether it was atoning for a year’s worth of lopsided reporting.

It’s reasonable for people to debate the merits of ways to slice the deficit or to fix Social Security’s shortfall, but it is not reasonable for the press to serve up one-sided, shallow reporting, which has been the norm from too many news outlets. As Social Security expert Alicia Munnell told Campaign Desk in late October: “We haven’t really had a debate.” And yet, a few weeks later, a headline in The Washington Post announced “Consensus is forming on what steps to take in cutting the deficit.” A consensus of elites, maybe, but not necessarily of the general public, who indicated in poll after poll they do not want to cut Social Security to reduce the deficit or achieve the long-term fiscal balance in the Social Security trust funds.

But stories asking what the public thinks or probing how ordinary citizens will be helped or hurt by proposed changes have been absent this year. CNN aired segments about why people take early retirement benefits, but stories like that were rare. That omission prompted me to travel to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and report in our series, “Social Security in the Heartland,” how people would fare in a different kind of system. In my admittedly unscientific sample, no one was in favor of the changes advocated by political elites and the press. One businessman who called himself a conservative and favors privatization did not like raising the retirement age because he said it would hurt some people financially. “It’s a violation of the original contract. I should get what the system was set up to give me,” he explained.

From the beginning of the deficit commission’s work early last year, the press passed along comments, even offensive ones, from co-chair Alan Simpson, famous for saying “this country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security and Medicare,” and “we’re trying to take care of the lesser people in society,” and likening Social Security to “a milk cow with 310 million tits.” The president did not fire Simpson, and so his comments set the premise for the public discourse that followed.

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Simpson and other advocates for reform talked a lot about the need to save Social Security for their grandchildren. “Erskine [Erskine Bowles, the commission’s co-chair] and I are in this one for our grandchildren,” Simpson said. “Somebody said they’re stalking-horses for taxes. I’m not a stalking horse for taxes. I’m a stalking horse for my grandchildren.” If the retirement income of future generations were the issue, we should have gotten critical analysis from the media about the looming crisis in retirement income. How do skimpy personal savings and the decline of good employer-sponsored pension plans mesh with cuts to Social Security? Never mind the grandchildren. About half of American households are at risk for being unable to maintain their pre-retirement income. News outlets, however, were more interested in the deficit crisis as defined by a narrow group of economic experts.

It wasn’t until much later—closer to the mid-term election, when candidates revealed their positions on Social Security—did stories began showing up on local news broadcasts. It’s fair to ask if the electorate understood enough about what was at stake to evaluate what the pols were saying on TV. Stories also appeared in local newspapers like The Bristol Press in Connecticut and The News-Gazette, which serves central Illinois. Those stories reported on grassroots pushback to the deficit commission proposals from a group called the Alliance for Retired Americans, and were notable because they offered new voices to the discussion.

As they did with health care, the media played follow the leader, waiting for newsmakers to make news. Alan Simpson and his deficit commission were making the news that was informing elite opinion. Other proposals came late—perhaps too late for the media. In late November, shortly before the deficit commission’s report was due, a group called the Citizens’ Commission on Jobs, Deficits and America’s Economic Future—composed of well-known experts and civic leaders—released its own set of proposals challenging those of the deficit commission. The group’s press release called the commission’s proposals “fundamentally misguided.” The group got some coverage, but conventional wisdom about changes for Social Security had already emerged.

This is not the first time the press has flubbed in covering Social Security. In the mid-1990s, the National Academy of Social Insurance commissioned a study by two well-known academics who examined coverage by major media outlets between 1977 and 1994. Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota and Robert Y. Shapiro of Columbia concluded that the media have delivered “a consistent message” to the public: “Social Security is very difficult to sustain without constant doctoring.” That is not a correct assessment of the program’s status, they said. Their study also found that the media turn to sources who might be expected to be critical of Social Security rather than people who support the program, who themselves could provide balance.

Sound familiar? Yale professor emeritus Theodore Marmor once told me: “Social insurance programs in the U.S. are widely popular in a superficial way. You have popularity without understanding.” The media bear much responsibility for this.

For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform, click here.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.