May
01
1999

Social Security Coverage: By the Numbers

To see who informs major network news discussions of Social Security reform, FAIR searched the Lexis/Nexis database for ABC, NBC and CBS evening news stories on the subject between January 1, 1998 and February 1, 1999. We identified all sources who appeared and spoke on screen, and classified them by whom they represented and what positions they took on privatization of Social Security.

The results reveal strong representation by the usual players in the debate--government officials and advocates of stock-market investment--while senior-citizen groups and those with misgivings about privatization were virtually invisible. No representative of organized labor appeared over the entire 13-month period.

While "people on the street" constituted the largest source group (42 percent), mysteriously few of these people expressed anti-privatization opinions. Despite a poll taken by NBC itself, in which 41 percent of those questioned opposed any type of Social Security privatization (NBC Nightly News, 4/29/98), only three of the 56 "ordinary people" interviewed on the news shows had doubts about investing the program in stocks.

Overwhelmingly, interviewees distrusted the government’s ability to manage their retirement money, and hailed what NBC called the "positive side of privatization...that you really do get more of your return back than what you put in." (NBC Nightly News, 4/6/98) Out of 38 total stories, two segments were entirely devoted to a retired county judge who had persuaded 2,000 of his colleagues to remove their money from Social Security and start a private retirement fund (NBC Nightly News, 1/28/99, CBS Evening News, 1/27/98).

The next largest percentage of sources (40 percent) were U.S. government representatives, including legislators and administration officials. Of government sources, President Bill Clinton and Fed chair Alan Greenspan--both proponents of privatization, though favoring different forms--made up a hefty 45 percent. Besides those two, politicians were uniformly in favor of some type of investment in stocks, differing only on how much of Social Security they wanted to invest and on their relative willingness to combine private investment with other measures, such as raising retirement age or trimming cost-of-living increases.

Advocacy groups, which mostly focused on "standing up for the 20-something generation" (CBS Evening News, 12/5/98), provided 7 percent of sources. Pro-privatization Gen-X groups Third Millennium and Economic Security 2000 dominated this category, appearing X times. AARP representatives appeared in news stories only twice, but not as significant counterweights to the 20-somethings; rather, AARP’s criticism of plans to raise retirement age echoed the reasoning of some pro-privatizers, who consider stock market investment the best alternative.

Think tanks and "experts"--economists, authors and professors--made up 11 percent of sources. While this group commented directly on privatization only three times (all pro), their statements were uniformly pessimistic about the future of Social Security. Of think tanks, the conservative Cato Institute was the most often represented, claiming four out of seven total cites. Brookings Institution, the Employee Benefit Research Center and the Council for a Responsible Federal Budget received one cite each.

Overall, out of the total 132 sources, a mere three took critical positions on privatization of Social Security. Twice, looking for someone to criticize Clinton’s privatization program, the networks turned to Alan Greenspan, who is in favor of privatization but thinks the Clinton plan has too much government involvement.

On an issue that could so easily put taxpayer money at major corporations’ disposal, the narrow range of opinion given voice by major network news suggests that the corporate-owned media might have a stake in the issue too.