Journalists are supposed to inform us.
What one means by “inform” is, I suppose, in the news consumer’s mind, but the point is that anyone who regularly partakes of American journalism should at least understand the basics of any given issue in the news.
Alas, that is not the case. Journalism, and journalists, are letting us down.
As just one example, Trudy Lieberman of Columbia Journalism Review points out the gross deficiencies in media coverage of “the Social Security debate”:
For nearly three years CJR has observed that much of the press has reported only one side of this story using “facts” that are misleading or flat-out wrong while ignoring others. Whatever the reason—ideology, poor understanding of how the program works, gullibility, or plain old reportorial laziness—news outlets have given the public a skewed picture of the financial health of this hugely important program, which is the sole source of retirement funds for millions of Americans and will continue to be for decades to come.
Lieberman points out that Social Security, while “not in perfect financial health,” is nevertheless a tweak or two away from extended solvency, a fact which has not “been discussed much in the press.” The reason it hasn’t, Lieberman suggests, is “because it doesn’t fit into the doom-and-gloom narrative that has proved politically expedient to tell.”
The result of this misreporting or underreporting or non-reporting is that people—many of them young people—are losing their faith in Social Security, which plays right into the hands of right-wingers, who have always hated it:
“The elite press repeatedly quotes the commentary of the devoted opponents of social insurance retirement programs,” says Yale professor emeritus Theodore Marmor. “But they appear unaware of how they are supporting a strategic attack on social insurance that has been going on for years.”
Singled out for bad reporting and bad journalism is The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery, the once-respectable paper’s budget correspondent. Montgomery pushes a narrative that fits nicely in with the narrative pushed by conservatives in the Republican Party: in order to come to grips with our financial problems, federal social programs—including Social Security—have to be sliced. There is a “surprisingly broad consensus” for that view, Montgomery’s reporting insists.
The Post’s Robert Samuelson is also specifically cited as pushing the “popular message” that Social Security is a welfare program that “is slowly and inexorably crowding out the rest of government.” Other journalist at other outlets have done the same thing, which leads Lieberman to surmise:
With that kind of news reporting, young people…can be forgiven for misunderstanding the concept of social insurance and believing Social Security is almost dead. Over the decades since the passage of Social Security in 1935, the media have used the term “social insurance” less and less, which of course keeps people in the dark about what it really is. In 1930, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune together published nearly eighty articles with the words “social insurance” in the headline. In 1990, there were at most two—one in the Times and one in the Post. By then the Cato Institute and other conservative think tanks were well on their way to changing the media’s narrative and description of Social Security. The program was no long to be described as social insurance, but as an investment that fell short of what people could achieve on their own by saving and managing their payroll tax contributions. It was not a good deal for younger workers.
Lieberman tells us how the right-wing Heritage Foundation has “systematically” attacked “the country’s most popular social program” by deliberately using a “Leninist” strategy, including “guerrilla warfare against both the current Social Security system and the coalition that supports it.” Part of that guerilla warfare involves gaining “the support of key individuals in the media as well as to win over vital constituencies for political reform.”
Sadly and disturbingly, not only have individuals in the media been won over, many Democrats have been compromised, too:
The media haven’t reported much about how the nuts and bolts of proposals to fix Social Security would affect ordinary people, but they’ve done a super job of showing how Social Security’s opponents have brought one of the biggest segments around to their way of thinking—Congressional Democrats, including the second ranking member of the Senate, Dick Durbin, who is often the media’s go-to guy for the progressive perspective. It’s kind of a validation of Cato’s manifesto…
“We used to have Democrats speaking out (in support of the program) which we don’t have today, “ says Eric Kingson, co-director of the advocacy group Social Security Works.
Well, I still hear some Democrats speaking out, but I admit their voices are not as loud and aren’t heard as often as they used to be. And part of the reason for that is because journalists have largely bought into the Social-Security-is-dying propaganda and are failing to inform the public as to what is really going on.
Thankfully, one outstanding journalist, Trudy Lieberman, is trying to do something about it.