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PORTSIDE  December 2010, Week 4

PORTSIDE December 2010, Week 4


William Greider on Social Security Scare


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Social Security in Perspective - A Conversation with William

By Trudy Lieberman

Columbia Journalism Review
Campaign Desk - Economic Crisis
The Water Cooler

December 21, 2010

Proposals to change the Social Security system have taken
shape, and could foreshadow long-lasting effects on the
program. Many of these call for substantial changes to
Social Security, but the public largely has only a vague
sense of how their benefits might change, both in the short
term and the long term. Campaign Desk has for months urged a
broader discussion of Social Security by the news media.
Over the year the country's elite news outlets and bloggers
have carried on quite a conversation about the proposed
changes - but how these proposals affect ordinary people has
been largely absent from the discussion.

I sat down with longtime political reporter William Greider
to find out why. Greider recently won the Nyhan Prize for
political reporting, given by the Shorenstein Center on the
Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. He
is currently the national affairs correspondent for The
Nation and has written about Social Security for that
publication. He has also worked for The Washington Post and
Rolling Stone, and has written several best-selling books,
including Who Will Tell the People: A Betrayal of American
Democracy, which touches on the media's role in American

Trudy Lieberman: What are we to make of this consensus on
fixes to Social Security that some in the media tell us has
been reached?

William Greider: This is a staggering scandal for the media.
I have yet to see a straightforward, non-ideological, non-
argumentative piece in any major paper that describes the
actual condition of Social Security. The core fact is that
Social Security has not contributed a dime to the deficit,
but has piled up trillions in surpluses, which the
government has borrowed and spent. Social Security's
surpluses have actually offset the impact of the deficit,
beginning with Reagan.

TL: Why don't reporters report this?

WG: They identify with the wisdom of the elites who don't
want to talk about this - because if people understand that
Social Security has a $2.5 trillion surplus, building toward
more than $4 trillion, people will ask why are politicians
trying to cut Social Security benefits?

TL: Is that why coverage has been so one-sided?

WG: Most reporters, with few exceptions, assume the
respectables are telling the truth about Social Security,
when it is really propaganda. What elites are saying is
deeply misleading, and they deliberately are distorting the
story. But reporters think they are smart people and must
know what they are talking about.

TL: Who influences the coverage?

WG: There are layers of influence that tell reporters this
is the safe side of the story. They don't go to people who
might be unsafe sources, like labor leaders who know how
changes will affect workers, or to old liberals who are out
of favor but who know the origins of Social Security and why
it was set up in the first place, or to neutral experts like
actuaries who actually understand how it works and what the
trust funds are all about. If they write about what the AFL-
CIO thinks, they are out of the orthodoxy.

TL: What are other layers?

WG: Most reporters who cover difficult areas typically
develop sources, and they write for those sources. They
don't want to offend them for fear they will lose access.
Reporters, we know, are sensitive, nervous animals; they act
like scared little rabbits. They also know what the owners
of their publications think. And those owners think pretty
much what the Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce

TL: Are reporters disconnected from the public?

WG: Reporters are so embedded in the established way of
understanding things. They are distanced from people at
large and don't spend much time trying to see why ordinary
people see things differently from the people in power - and
why people are often right about things.

TL: Is this different than in the past?

WG: Yes. In the last twenty years, as media ownership became
highly concentrated, the gulf between the governing elites,
both in and out of government, and the broad range of
ordinary citizens has gotten much worse. The press chose to
side with the governing elites and look down on the
citizenry as ignorant or irrational, greedy, or even nutty.

TL: Why is this so?

WG: The press is dangerously over-educated itself, in that
reporters have developed different kinds of expertise
themselves. And that brings them closer to their sources,
more motivated to write for their approval. All this
technocratic expertise encourages them to take a
condescending view of the people they are writing for,
especially in finance and economics. If all the elite
experts assume Social Security is a problem, a reporter
would lose respect if he or she seriously examined the
counter arguments. Frankly, most political reporters don't
have a clue about the real facts. They write about Social
Security as if it were just another welfare program. They do
not seem to understand the surpluses are actually the
savings of American workers - the money set aside for future
retirement. This is virtuous behavior - the opposite of
greed or the recklessness of financial elites.

TL: What has been other fallout from the rise of the techno-
expert reporter?

WG: The new technological knowledge becomes a tool that
blocks old-fashioned street reporting. The polling and focus
groups work against old style reporting. Political reporters
rely on the pseudo-science to tell them what people think
instead of doing what reporters are supposed to do - talking
to real people where they live, listening to their
perspectives and respecting their views.

TL: How does this play out in day-to-day reporting?

WG: My sense from the way stories are written is that unless
you have the "facts" of pseudo-scientific evidence, editors
don't want reporters making any observations on what they
learned as reporters. This supposedly makes them more
"objective," but it does the opposite. They become more one-
sided in their reporting.

TL: Doesn't that make them more disconnected from the

WG: Yes. Reporters and editors are disturbed to learn that
growing sectors of the public do not trust their reporting.
But this is the natural result of one-sided reporting. It
reflects the unconscious class bias of the media - looking
up to selected expertise that's in power and looking down on
the everyday citizens. In the old days, when I started as a
reporter, newspapers were far more diverse and
representative in speaking to and for the variety of popular
perspectives. Each newspaper might have its bias, left or
right or something else, but there were countering opinions
and perspectives that tended to keep the other side more
honest. That variety is pretty much gone now, so lots of
citizens are finding their own ways to inform themselves,
putting their faith in the bloggers or other renegade
sources. Who can blame them?

TL: Who are the losers in this paradigm?

WG: It's pretty obvious. I start with the conviction that
people in every station of life are not stupid. Most people
are pretty capable of forming opinions and insights of their
own, based on their own experiences and what they see
happening around them. They don't get everything right but -
guess what - neither do the governing elites, the economists
and policy wonks who tell us what is correct thinking. The
financial collapse and economic breakdown are dramatic
evidence of elite failure, yet I see most media reporting
still relying on the same old sources as if nothing went
wrong. In a functioning democracy, what the people think
would be regarded as a vital source for informing democratic
debate. That is what the people lose - their seat at the

TL: Do the losers care?

WG: As we are learning every day, most of them gave up on
the press a long time ago. They realized that newspapers
were not on their side. There was no longer that old-time
relationship. People got the feeling that newspapers weren't
speaking for them. The new technologies give the "losers"
new options for how to inform themselves. Some of these are
half-baked or worse, but people will keep exploring
alternatives and refining what they are willing to trust.
The crucial point I am trying to make is that this process
of citizens in a democracy keeping themselves informed does
not belong to private enterprise. It does not depend on
finding the right business model. People must find a way -
and I think they will - regardless of whether newspaper and
broadcasting owners want to assist them, or merely make

TL: Let's go back and put all this in the context of the
press coverage of Social Security. What should the press be
reporting that they haven't been?

WG: Opponents of Social Security are deliberately confusing
Social Security with Medicare; they are distorting reality.
There are simple facts that should be reported: 1) Social
Security never contributed a dime to the deficit; 2) Social
Security softened the impact of the Reagan deficits by
building up a surplus; 3) the federal government borrowed
the money and spent it on other things; 4) the federal
government has to pay this money back because it really
belongs to the working people who paid their FICA deductions
every pay day. The elites in both parties know the day is
approaching when the federal government has to come up with
the trillions it borrowed from the workers. That is the
crisis the politicians don't want to deal with, so they
create a phony argument that slyly blames working people for
their problem. That's the propaganda they want the public to

TL: What are the facts about Medicare that they should be

WG: Medicare is separate and in serious financial trouble
for two basic reasons driving up costs. First, thanks to
medical advances and the effective public health system, our
aging population gets to live steadily longer. That ought to
be understood as good news for people and society, but
instead elite opinion laments it. Second, the private
health-care system is still centered on the profit motive,
and that gives virtually every health care provider from
doctors to drug companies strong incentive to keep raising
the costs. That debate has also been grossly distorted in
media coverage that typically dismisses alternatives as
socialist - and that ends the discussion.

TL: Who is representing the public in this debate?

WG: The same people who rallied the public against Social
Security privatization in the Bush administration. They have
organized again. Some are the same players. Labor is on the
barricades. Some righteous members of Congress. But in
general the mass media don't go to those dissenting voices.
Instead, they are reporting factual errors as correct

TL: What do you want the press to do?

WG: I am daring reporters to go and find out the truth about
this and report it. I'm not asking them to draw big
conclusions or to assert their opinions. Just be honest
reporters. It's so frustrating to see the coverage. I'm not
asking reporters to change any minds. I'm just asking them
to do some real reporting. I mean, go to the facts - the
actuarial records - and talk to a variety of experts.
Reporters ring up the same sources and ask them how to think
about Social Security.

TL: What does the public understand about what is happening?

WG: Not everyone understands what is happening. But most do.
Most people know they have paid money into Social Security
all these years and the money belongs to them, not the
federal government. This is not welfare. It's probably the
best-understood program in the federal government. In fact,
polls indicate in these troubled times the public believes
people need increased benefits.

TL: Why hasn't the press talked about Social Security as
social insurance?

WG: My guess is that very few reporters understand what it
is, or know that the concept of social insurance originated
as a conservative idea - conserving social solidarity. It
was first proposed more than one hundred years ago in
Germany by Bismarck - not exactly a left-winger. Today's
critics style it as an entitlement program, and therefore
reporters think that it's like welfare. It's not something
the government gives to greedy old people. Alan Simpson has
been relentless on this point. The press has picked up on
Simpson's language and made it sound like it's a hand-out.

TL: A recent Bloomberg poll shows that two-thirds of those
polled think the program should be means-tested. Has the
press explained what that means?

WG: Social Security is by far the government's most popular
program precisely because it is universal. Everyone pays in;
everyone is protected against catastrophe. The danger in
means testing is that it really may turn Social Security
into a welfare program - alms for the poor - and eventually
doom it by destroying the broad political support it enjoys.
That's another aspect for debate the media has glossed over.

TL: Does Bismarck's notion of social solidarity resonate in
this country?

WG: The idea of social solidarity represents the core of our
society. The belief that we're all in this together has been
trampled over in the last thirty years by conservative
ideology. Good citizens and politicians have been sucked
into believing that solidarity is not the issue. Until
Americans rediscover the importance of solidarity, we're
going to be screwed up as a society. We will be trapped in
brutal class conflicts and arguments over who gets more, who
must be thrown over the side in the interest of business
efficiency. I believe deeply most Americans do not want this
dog-eat-dog brutality, but do not see much chance of
changing it.

TL: What has to happen?

WG: We have to have a come back to this central principle of
this society. The Tea Party in its own crude way is reaching
for it. What people want is a government that works for
them. Social Security is a great test case for what people
want. By all means, let's have a debate. But we haven't yet
had an honest debate.

TL: What can the press do to improve its reporting on Social
Security and make this debate happen?

WG: There are a lot of smart, capable reporters. They have
to go back to the beginning and put a story together that
asks two simple questions: Why go after Social Security now?
What is its real condition now? They need to go back to the
basics of reporting - talking and listening, observing what
people think about everyday reality. Talk to all sides
respectfully. On economic issues, talk to the workers, not
just the bosses and management experts. You will learn
valuable insights from all of them.

TL: Is there any other advice you can give to newbies on
this beat?

WG: The media, despite many virtues, are failing their
obligations to a functioning democracy. Reporters might ask
themselves if they are complicit in this indictment, or if
they could do something to prove it is wrong.

For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and
entitlement reform, click here.

[Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing
Health, and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia
Journalism Review.]


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