This past Sunday, The Washington Post published a troubling front-page article about Social Security's financial status and its future. The article repeated widely held misconceptions and used biased language to create the impression of a system in crisis.
In response, a number of progressive leaders have spoken out on blogs and in statements provided to Media Matters.
Dean Baker, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic Policy Research, writes:
News outlets generally like to claim a separation between their editorial pages and their news pages. The Washington Post has long ignored this distinction in pursuing its agenda for cutting Social Security, however it took a big step further in tearing down this barrier with a lead front page story that would have been excluded from most opinion pages because of all the inaccuracies it contained.
Economist, Nobel laureate, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes:
Dean Baker is angry at the Washington Post for spreading disinformation about Social Security. He's right, of course -- and it's shocking that a well-known fallacy is the subject of a "news analysis" that purports to inform readers.
You see, the WaPo makes a big deal of the fact that Social Security is currently taking in less in payroll taxes than it's paying out in benefits. Yet this means nothing, except as a favorite point used to create confusion by those who want to kill the program.
What you can't do is insist that the trust fund is meaningless, because SS is just part of the budget, then claim that some crisis arises when receipts fall short of payments, because SS is a standalone program. Yet that's exactly what the WaPo claims.
This is what you call negative journalistic value added.
In a post at Campaign for America's Future's blog, Richard Eskow writes:
How can a 2,363 word piece in on Social Security be so densely packed with inaccuracies, falsehoods, and downright lies?
It almost takes a cryptographer to unpack the deceptions contain in an article published Saturday with the headline, "The debt fallout: How Social Security went 'cash negative' earlier than expected."
The piece's author sits us down by the campfire, holds the flashlight up to her chin, and spins a yarn filled with quotes from right-wing ideologues from both parties. Most of her "sources" have a long history of trying to gut Social Security, often under the employ of billionaire former Nixon Cabinet member Pete Peterson (whose own organization, Fiscal Times, provides financial journalism services for thePost. Coincidence? You decide.)
How many quotes are included from the organizations and groups defending Social Security? None.
How many quotes from economists like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Dean Baker, who have a proven record of accuracy of domestic economic matters? None.
How many quotes from truly nonpartisan observers like Harry C. Ballantyne, the Chief Actuary for Medicare and Social Security appointed by Ronald Reagan who coauthored a report which put the lie to many of these claims? None.
A director of the AARP is quoted, but only so that he can be characterized as the spokesperson for an 'interest group.' conducting a "public relations campaign."
In a letter to the editor of The Washington Post obtained by Media Matters, Max Ritchman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, wrote:
On behalf of millions of Americans who have worked for and earned their Social Security benefits, I take strong exception to Sunday's front-page piece by Lori Montgomery titled "Social Security adding billions to U.S. budget woes." This story is so riddled with factual inaccuracies and biased rhetorical flourishes it has no business in the news section of a major, or that matter, any newspaper.
The entire premise of the piece is built on a foundation of falsehoods that have been perpetrated for decades by those who oppose Social Security with virtually no balance provided for the reader. Bias reported as fact is the hallmark of this story. For example, Social Security's short-term shortfall is not a "treacherous milestone," but indeed a natural consequence of the programs' funding mechanism. Surpluses have been built up in Social Security since the last major reforms in 1983 precisely so funds would be available to pay benefits of the baby boom generation as they began retiring
I strongly urge the Washington Post to limit its editorializing to the appropriate editorial pages and stop disguising opinion as news reporting.
Statement from Edward F. Coyle, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans:
We cannot allow politicians or those in the media who have never liked Social Security to use this budget climate as political cover for misleading attacks on a great American success story that has kept generations of seniors out of poverty. Social Security has amassed a $2.6 trillion surplus to prepare for upcoming retirements, and the Treasury Department pays interest to the Social Security Trust Fund on what it borrows.
Statement from Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy, obtained by Media Matters:
The Washington Post Sunday front page article on Social Security was particularly troublesome in that it recklessly presented erroneous data that led to faulty conclusions on a matter crucial to so many elderly, disabled and young Americans. The article omitted important information about the practice of the government raiding the Social Security Trust Fund at its most robust times. If the American public reading this article had been informed of these strategically important facts, they too would find themselves echoing Harry Reid's words when he asked the detractors of the program to "simply leave it alone."
Statement from Heather Ansley, director of veterans policy at VetsFirst, a program of the United Spinal Association, obtained by Media Matters:
Our veterans have paid into Social Security and that it must be there for our wounded warriors and for veterans entering retirement. Also, we know that Social Security does not contribute to the deficit and believe that it should not be part of the supercommittee discussions.
Statement from Daniel Mintz, campaign director of MoveOn.org, obtained by Media Matters:
More than a year ago, MoveOn sent an email to our 5 million members listing the Top 5 Social Security Myths and debunked them. This Sunday, the Washington Post published a front-page article that, incredibly, managed to present all five myths as if they were fact. This wasn't an accidental misstatement of a detail or two. It was, instead, just the latest instance of a continued campaign in Washington to force an austerity agenda down the country's throat to protect the 1% at the expense of the 99%. Those who subscribe to the Washington Post deserve better, and at the very least, they deserve the truth. The Post should issue a retraction immediately, and needs to keep opinion pieces where they belong, on the opinion pages.
Statement from Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, obtained by Media Matters:
The campaign to reduce Social Security benefits is an attack on women, since women rely on Social Security for more years and for a larger share of their income than do men; women are also the majority of Social Security recipients. That the campaign has been able to lease space on the front page of the Washington Post is insidious. The scare headline and language, not to mention the misstatements of the current strength of the system's finances, mislead the public. That the Post's editorial page represents the 1% and not the 99% is well known, but the incursion of the editors' views onto the news pages by masquerading an opinion piece as news is a step too far.