8 April 1998
Our current howler: Journalist, heal thyself
Synopsis: Why is the public "uninformed" about Social Security? Two journalists should review their own work.
Commentary by Mike Jensen
NBC Nightly News, NBC, 4/7/98
Social Security Debate Begins Amid Misunderstandings
Jackie Calmes, The Wall Street Journal, 4/7/98
At least this debate will be conducted in something resembling
good faith, unlike the Clinton character discourse. But here at
DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, we're bracing for the utter confusion
that will surely accompany the Social Security debate. Any time
the press corps discusses this issue, conceptual chaos is sure
to reign. We got a taste of things to come in last night's Nightly
News lead story.
Mike Jensen introduced us to "the Morgan family of Charlotte,
N.C.," three generations of North Carolinians who "don't
think much of Social Security." And why are the Morgans so
down on the program? "Not enough straight talk from the politicians,"
Jensen scolded. "Too many myths about Social Security."
Well, it turned out that Jensen had two myths in mind,
and they contradict one another! Jensen didn't seem to notice
the problem, and plowed ahead with his report:
JENSEN: Myth Number 1? That the system is taking in too little
money. Reality? It's taking in too much.
Jensen went on to say that, at current Social Security tax
rates, the system is taking in "$50 billion more annually"
than it is dispensing to SS recipients.
JENSEN: Myth Number 2? That the extra money collected from
people like the Morgans goes into a Social Security trust fund
to be used for future generations.
In reality, the government spends the extra money, Jensen
said, on highways, the army, "even buildings."
The problem with Jensen's report is obvious: his myths don't
go together real well. Who could believe both at one time? According
to Jensen, the first "myth" upsetting the Morgans is
that the system is taking in too little money. And the
second thing they apparently think? The extra money we're
piling up is being spent on buildings and highways!
It's no wonder the Morgans are all burned up if they're trying
to deal with confusion like this, but Jensen pressed on to conclusion.
"For now, the most the Morgan family and every other American
can hope for is a little more honesty about the problem."
Honesty is always a fabulous policy, but in this sad case, who
should provide it? Jensen started out by bashing politicians,
but there was no example in his report of a politician misleading
a soul. Our thought? While the Morgans are making their family
wish list, maybe they could ask for a little more clarity, and
a little less cant, from network economics reporters.
Because the truth is, anyone who watched the 1996 Medicare
discourse will know how confusing things can get when the press
corps explains fiscal topics. And yesterday, we couldn't help
worrying about the debate-to-come as we thumbed through the Wall
Jackie Calmes took on the task of previewing the "Great
Social Security Debate." Like so many scribes who write on
this topic, Calmes began with a lamentation on the American public's
CALMES: But here's the rub: the president and the nonpartisan
moderators he has
enlisted to emcee the year's national dialogue are charged
with educating a public
that feels passionately about Social Security but thinks it
knows things about it that,
in fact, just aren't so. "People have strong opinions,
but the details are overwhelming
to a lot of people, and there's a lot of misunderstanding,"
says Marilyn Moon, who is
one of the six trustees who oversee the Social Security system.
Calmes stressed the ignorance of the Great Unwashed. "If
the audience [at Wednesday's forum] is indeed representative of
the public, it will be groping for information," she said.
The truth is, Calmes never demonstrates in her piece that the
public is misinformed about anything. But if the public is "groping
for information," it may be because they've been fed a diet
of incoherent articles and reports. Halfway through this piece,
for example, Calmes starts sketching the SS Big Picture. It's
worth limning her work with a bit of care to see the confusion
reading stiffs must endure.
Under a subhead of "Uninformed Public," Calmes starts
sketching her view:
CALMES: If the audience [in Kansas City] is indeed representative
of the public, it will be groping for information..."There's
an awful lot of myths," says project spokesman Bill Brannigan,
among them a belief "the system is going to collapse."
But who is "misinformed" on this? Calmes'
next paragraphher very next sentencecontradicts Brannigan's
CALMES (continuing directly): Most Americans think Social Security
faces problems, but not an imminent crisis, according to various
polls. While most experts agree, that poses two hurdles for the
president and the Congress in seeking a solution...
So in fact, most Americans correctly believe the system
faces long-term problems. Without any effort to explain
her sub-head ("Uninformed Public"), Calmes now attempts
to describe those "two hurdles" faced by the president
and Congress. She doesn't enumerate her pair of hurdles; we're
still not sure what the second hurdle is. But Calmes' first
hurdle is clearly ID'ed. Again, we quote in full:
CALMES: Most Americans think Social Security faces problems,
but not an imminent crisis, according to various polls. While
most experts agree, that poses two hurdles for the president and
Congress in seeking a solution. Absent crisis, there is little
or no political urgency to take on controversial subjects such
as Social Security. The problem, as much of the public sees
it, is in fact the fault of the politicians themselvesfor "raiding"
Social Security funds.
There's the first hurdle: because people feel there is no crisis,
there is no need to address long-term problems. And people feel
that the problem was caused by pols raiding SS funds. But is
that happening, and has it caused a problem? Calmes
now discusses the views of two experts, and confusion continues
CALMES: "People believe the government is taking the money
and spending it for other things," says Robert Blendon, professor
of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University.
"The reason that's important for the current debate is if
you ask people to sacrifice and they think the money is being
misdirected, they're not going to leap on a sword."
But is the money being spent for other things? Blendon
says that's what people believe. When Calmes moves on to
her second expert, the confusion becomes complete:
CALMES: Ms. Moon likewise cites the popular belief that trust
funds are being squandered in bemoaning that "the easiest
claims to make are often the ones with least basis in fact. But
they're hard to refute. Are we spending the trust funds? Yes,
we are. And no, we're not."
Thank God for experts who can enter debates and provide some
guidance to that uninformed public.
CALMES (continuing directly): Without the annual Social Security
surpluses, the overall federal budget would face continued deficits.
But the funds reduce the government's need to borrow for other
programs now, with the presumption that it will meet its obligations
to future Social Security recipients.
Calmes seems to say that the surpluses are being spent
for other programs, but things will work out in the end.
The basic facts about Social Security are remarkably
easy to state. Jensen states almost all the basic facts in last
night's NBC broadcast. At present, SS takes in more than it pays
out. The extra money is spent on other programs. In the future,
the program will start taking in less money than it needs.
At that pointabsent reductions in benefitsCongress will have
to use general tax revenues to pay for the program. Or it will
have to borrow, or raise payroll taxes.
None of that is hard to explain. The basic facts are numbingly
simple. And yet, journalists and "experts" routinely
create massive confusion in discussing SSall the while stating,
as if by rote, that the hapless public is grossly uninformed.
We have no doubt that the American public is less than perfectly
informed on this topic. But before journalists blame politicians
for that, they might first try to read their own work.
Next: THE DAILY HOWLER reviews next-day reporting on
the Social Security forum!