December 13, 2004
(NOTE: Please read the update to this alert .)
The debate over Social Security privatization could very well be the most important domestic story of the coming year. Unfortunately, recent media discussions of the topic are built on flawed assumptions and inaccurate information.
"Social Security is in trouble," announced CNN reporter Bruce Morton on the December 9 broadcast of NewsNight with Aaron Brown , adding: "Politicians like South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham know it." Though that's the starting point for the segment, the "trouble" that Social Security faces might not be nearly as bad as the "solution" offered by politicians like Graham.
According to its own trustees reports, Social Security will be able to operate just as it does now until 2042; another projection from the Congressional Budget Office forecasts 10 additional years of solvency. Not bad for a program in "crisis."
What's more, the "bankruptcy" of Social Security has been moving steadily into the future; in 1997, the program was expected to run short of funds in 2029, or 32 years; now, in 2004, the trustees say they won't need more cash until 2042-- gaining 13 years of projected black ink in just seven years (Political Animal , 12/13/04).
But CNN offered none of these caveats; the only sources in the report were Michael Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute and Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition-- both of whom support some form of Social Security privatization. Another guest was a 27-year old who suggested that Social Security would not be around for her when she needed it.
With such a one-sided debate, reporters turn to calling various privatization schemes "reform," and they suggest that something must be done. As Morton put it, "Fixing the system will have to hurt, somehow. But not fixing it may hurt worse."
Before the segment, CNN anchor Aaron Brown commented: "We expect in the days ahead to take a good, hard look at Social Security reform, privatization and the rest. This is, if you will, the trillion-dollar elephant in the room." One hopes that CNN will take a "hard look" at the facts regarding Social Security, and include a broad range of opinions on the fiscal health of the program, as well as the faulty assumptions that are used to support the case for privatization.
CBS Evening News , on the other hand, profiled one man in its December 9 report on Social Security: Tad DeHaven, whose on-screen ID was "National Taxpayers Union." According to reporter John Roberts, he is a "poster child for Social Security reform: 28 years old, a college graduate, in the work force for six years, getting married next May, expected to retire in 2042. That's the year Social Security goes broke."
For starters, that is not when Social Security "goes broke." According to the conservative estimates of its trustees report, Social Security would still be able to pay about 73 percent of its obligations after 2042. And as economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic & Policy Research frequently points out, "the projections show that the program will always be able to pay a higher real benefit than that received by current retirees" (Economic Reporting Review , 12/6/04), since future benefits are projected to be more generous than those given to today's seniors.
But while CBS viewers learned a fair amount about Tad DeHaven's personal life, they weren't given a crucial bit of information about his professional career: the National Taxpayers Union is a conservative Beltway group dedicated to Social Security privatization, and DeHaven has also worked at the like-minded Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation (Political Animal , 12/10/04). So when Roberts noted that DeHaven "is fully on board the plan to establish private accounts for Social Security" and "argues doing nothing is not an option," that shouldn't have been a surprise.
Why was CBS using a figure closely associated with the privatization side of the debate in a "man on the street" interview? Whatever the reason, the end result was clear: a report that sorely needed to be balanced.
Tell CNN NewsNight to offer a broader debate in its upcoming reports about Social Security, including the viewpoints of those who do not believe that Social Security faces an imminent crisis. And ask CBS Evening News if it plans to air a clarification noting that the "man on the street" it used to explain Social Security's future was in fact a paid proponent of Social Security privatization.
CBS Evening News
As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone. Please send a copy of your correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org .
More resources on Social Security:
CounterSpin interview with Seth Ackerman (12/10/04):
"The Myth of Social Security's Imminent Collapse," by Doug Henwood (Extra!, 7-8/95):
Center for Economic & Policy Research: