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Daily Howler: The AP's bungling on Social Security defines the state of your ''press corps''
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BROKEN DISCOURSE! The AP’s bungling on Social Security defines the state of your “press corps:” // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 25, 2005

THE HOWLER GETS RESULTS: Deftly linking to somebody else, Josh Marshall takes up our great challenge! But then, so does Media Matters. Isn't it great to see Saint McCain get skunked for his blatant, repeated misstatements? High praise to the St. Peterburg Times for skunking the sanctified Senator Self-Praise in the editorial to which Josh has linked.

BROKEN DISCOURSE: We’ve often told you: Your national “press corps” is so inept that, in effect, you don’t even have one. On Wednesday, the AP’s remarkable bungling about Social Security helped make that point all too clear.

How inept was the AP’s work? Wednesday morning, the SS trustees released their annual report on the system’s long-term solvency. Before the poobahs held their confab, Martin Crutsinger filed a preview story for the AP. Here’s how that piece began:

CRUTSINGER/FIRST REPORT (3/23/05): Both sides in the pitched battle over Social Security are getting ready to argue over a whole new set of numbers—the annual assessment of when Social Security and Medicare will go broke.

Even before the report was released Wednesday, critics complained that the administration might try to fudge the numbers.

Uh-oh! Obviously, the trustees weren’t going to give an assessment of when Social Security would “go broke.” As readers know, Social Security will never “go broke;” if the system remains unchanged, the payroll tax will always produce large sums, although the sums may not be large enough to fund the current promised level of benefits. And sure enough! A few hours later, Crutsinger filed a second report, in which he described the trustees’ press conference—and by then, he had amended his language! Here’s how he began that second report about the trustees’ assessment:
CRUTSINGER/SECOND REPORT (3/23/05): The trust fund for Social Security will go broke in 2041—a year earlier than previously estimated—the trustees reported Wednesday. Trustees also said that Medicare, the giant health care program for the elderly and disabled, faces insolvency in 2020.

The new projections made in the trustees annual report were certain to be cited by both sides in the massive battle to overhaul Social Security, which President Bush has made the top domestic priority of his second term.

In this piece, Crutsinger’s language was a bit overwrought, but at least his claim was technically accurate; he was now saying that the Social Security trust find would “go broke” in 2041. Of course, the system itself would still function after that year, as the trustees explained in their report; according to their projections (which err on the side of being gloomy), the system will still be able to pay 74 percent of promised benefits after that date. Crutsinger explained this near the end of his article, and the gloomy language with which he began might well have misled many readers. But at least he had stopped directly asserting that the system itself would “go broke.”

But this distinction was plainly lost on the AP’s hapless Glen Johnson, whose groaning work we first criticized during Campaign 2000 (links below). How completely inept is Johnson? On Wednesday, he too filed an AP piece about the trustees’ new report—and sure enough, he had Social Security itself “going broke!” Here’s how his report started:

JOHNSON (3/23/05): Social Security will begin paying out more in benefits than it receives in taxes in 2017, twelve years from now and a year earlier than previously estimated, trustees said Wednesday in a forecast adding fuel to the debate over changes President Bush wants.

The trustees estimated that the program, which is about to be inundated with baby boom retirees, would go broke in 2041, also a year earlier than in their previous annual report. After then, benefits would have to be cut by more than 25 percent if payroll taxes aren't increased.

Once again, we’ll state the obvious—the trustees did not “estimate that the program would go broke in 2041” (as Johnson’s next sentence would seem to imply). They estimated that Social Security’s trust fund would be exhausted in that year, leaving the system able to pay 74 percent of promised benefits. This is, of course, a giant distinction. But it flew right past the hapless Johnson, and it flew right past his headline writer. “Social Security to go broke year earlier than predicted,” said the headline which sat atop his hopeless, bungled, inept piece.

In a word, the level of incompetence here is astounding. Social Security has lay at the center of the national debate for the past three months. And even now, the AP’s Social Security reporters continue to bungle the simplest concepts. Is there any other professional area where work like this would ever be tolerated? If engineers did their work this way, all our bridges would quickly collapse and all our cars would end up in some river. Only the “press corps” would dream of accepting such complete, absolute bungled work.

And make no mistake—the hapless work of Johnson and Crutsinger follows the preferred White House line. For the past three months, President Bush and his gang of dissemblers have pimped the language these incompetents use, trying to make the public believe that Social Security will soon be going “broke” (“bankrupt,” “flat bust;” will be “exhausted”). It’s the normal function of a journalist to clarify such attempts to deceive—and this particular deception has been endlessly challenged, at THE HOWLER and elsewhere, all over the web. But so what? Three months later, the AP’s half-wits still can’t get this straight (or don’t plan to)! By the way—when writers can’t get the simplest concepts straight, is there any chance that they will ever be able to flesh out so complex a topic?

“Social Security to go broke year earlier!” That headline was sent to smaller papers all over the country—and when those papers ran that headline, that headline continued to mislead the public. It’s impossible to conduct a democracy with news orgs this inept in charge. And yes, here’s the obvious question: Why are Johnson and Crutsinger still working? Why do such half-wits have jobs?

STILL BUNGLING: By the way, Crutsinger’s capacity for bungling knows few bounds. In the “second report” which we quote above, his claim that the trust fund is “going broke” was at least technically accurate. But he proceeded to make another large mistake—another mistake which, once again, overstated the problem confronting SS. Media Matters explained it quite nicely. You know what to do—just click here.

HE RARELY MISSES: Of course, it doesn’t help when criticism of bungled reporting is itself bungled in some basic way. Thomas Lang of CJR Daily is one of our favorite scribes on the web. As far as we know, he was the first to criticize the Crutsinger report. But alas—he himself bungled in his critique! See if you can spot his error. With this dude, it don’t happen often.

OR YOU CAN CALL HIM BUNGLER: During Campaign 2000, Johnson was one of the architects of the Boston Globe’s hopeless but deeply influential “doggy pill” story. (According to Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, the Globe’s Walter Robinson worked on the story with Bush uber-hack Dan Bartlett.) Go ahead—use the search engines to review our work on this topic. This September story was utterly stupid—but it played a major role in deciding the 2000 race. Glen Johnson was bungling (or something) from the start. This week, he maintained his habit quite nicely.

Postscript: Jeez—we’re surprised to see that we’ve never posted the full account of that doggy-pill story. Trust us—it was a dilly. But you may have to “wait for the book.”