Big Media Fails Its “Moment of Truth” on Debt Panel Report

Big Media Fails Its “Moment of Truth” on Debt Panel Report

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“The Moment of Truth” is the self-satisfied title of the final majority report from the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, or the Debt Panel. (Read the 59-page report here.)

No one expects the commission to get the supermajority of 14 votes from the body’s 18 members. That would send the recommendations automatically to Congress for a vote. But a sign-on of 10 to 12 votes might, as the New York Times reported Thursday, “enhance its standing as a model for legislation.”

Translation: If the president includes the proposal in his next State of the Union message, watch for bipartisan conservatives in Congress to go at Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with hammer and tongs.

One truth about the “Moment of Truth,” however, is that a wide range of national media outlets have endorsed the plan without much fact checking, honest representation of the debate, fairness or balance. Nor have they reflected much on the actual impact of proposals on average Americans.

The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR News, CBS News, Marketplace and many other mainstream media outlets have portrayed the commission’s co-chairs as courageous figures tilting at sacred cows like Social Security and the mortgage interest deduction on behalf of our grandchildren’s future. They are seekers of “sensible common ground” on which Americans can accept their share of the “sacrifice” needed in program cuts and tax increases.

Actually, some proposed changes, such as raising the full Social Security retirement age to 69, would directly hit those same children and grandchildren and be especially hard on lower-income ethnic groups.

NYTimes news analyst Matt Bai wrote on Dec. 1, “The national debt is near the top of any list of voter concerns at the moment . . . .” Half true.

Exit polls in the recent election did place the national debt high among their concerns. But also multiple polls in recent months have shown repeatedly that Americans across the board do not want political elites to cut Social Security and other social-insurance protections in order to reduce the national debt or to achieve long-term actuarial balance in Social Security.

In a poll taken after the November 2 election, the Campaign for America’s Future found that only 2 percent of Americans felt that the deficit should be Congress' first priority.

That poll also showed that 69 percent agreed with the statement, "Politicians should keep their hands off Social Security and Medicare" as they attempt to address the national debt.

That seven out of 10 voters is the same proportion that a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found were “uncomfortable with making cuts to programs such as Medicare, Social Security and defense in order to reduce the deficit.”

Yet another survey by the liberal advocacy group Social Security Works even found that a majority of Tea Party supporters don’t want cuts in the program for those reasons.

Again, Matt Bai: “Budget experts from both parties agree, for instance, with the commission’s co-chairmen, [Democrat] Erskine B. Bowles and [Republican] Alan K. Simpson, that some reductions in Social Security will be essential to the nation’s long-term fiscal stability.”

Ignore for a moment that Bai and the others fail to reflect the very large number of progressive budget experts who strongly disagree. The plain truth is that all of these reports miss what the Debt Panel’s co-chairs acknowledge -- that Social Security cannot be part of the solution to the national debt -- because it is a completely separate program.

Here’s the straight poop: U.S. law places a firewall between Social Security and the overall federal budget. Legally the program generates revenue through our payroll taxes and interest that the federal government pays back into the program -- $120 billion this year alone, according to the Social Security Administration.

By law, Social Security cannot add to the deficit because it is prohibited from borrowing more money to pay any future obligations.

Even the NY Times editorial board (Dec. 2), however, continues to accept the false premise that deficit reduction – a genuine concern – is tied to “big dollar programs like Social Security.”

Elsewhere, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Trudy Lieberman blogged, “CBS Fumbles Again: A lopsided report on Social Security.”

Lieberman wrote, “If there were prizes given for the most one-sided, misleading story about Social Security this year, a segment aired on the ‘CBS Evening News’ before Thanksgiving would make a great candidate.”

Mainstream coverage buys into the argument of bipartisan deficit hawks that the program is a mere pile of IOUs, and its trust fund—money you and I pay into it for decades—is only a rainy-day stash for any federal emergency. But even our personal retirement accounts have tough rules and withdrawal penalties to discourage their use as slush funds.

Shared “Pain”

Few major news outlets, though, are asking what the shared “pain” of reductions in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would mean to people whose retirement accounts have become precarious and who have lost health care coverage or had it reduced.

Average Social Security benefits in the United States are only about $14,000 a year – and $11,000 for women. Try living on that. Yet the program’s consistent flow of checks has stabilized retirement in America, while the shift to stock-market-tied 401(k) accounts has shaken middle-class and working Americans with fear and uncertainty.

That’s bad for American security.

What about the Debt Panel’s recommendations on military cuts? Will reporters look carefully at the extent to which proposed reductions fall to questionable weapons systems and bloated contractor spending? Defense Secretary Robert Gates this week discussed trimming health benefits for military retirees as his department’s contribution toward debt reduction. Lifetime sacrifice for the defense budget—that’s quite a recruitment slogan.

Where will reporting be on the human impact of proposed cuts? Shouldn’t conservatives’ cries for reining in long-range “structure debt” (meaning social insurance protections for the middle class) also be held to long-term memory about the cyclical fluctuations in the economy?

Will big-media journalists continue to buy into the guff that GOP tax cuts for the rich, two wars and giveaways to the financial institutions that got us into this mess are only—as the Debt Panel’s co-chairs like to say—“short-term” costs.

The phony excuse for reporting in recent days has largely failed to link “bipartisan” agreement by people with highly conflicted economic and political interests with human reality.

If a journalist wants to argue that personal and population impacts are best sustained by boot-strapping and tough, share-the-pain love, let that debate ensue – but only in the framework of all the facts and honest reporting about the options offered by every side.

Right now, American journalism is massively – once again – failing to perform its constitutionally-appointed task.