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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.

Then this:

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 Street Journal.

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 massive ignorance:

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 paragraph—her very next sentence—contradicts Brannigan's claim:

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 themselves—for "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 to grow:

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 point—absent reductions in benefits—Congress 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 SS—all 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!