Nyhan Prize winner and political reporter William Greider discusses why the traditional media has failed so drastically on reporting Social Security with CJR’s Trudy Lieberman.
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….
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 think.
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: 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 believe.
TL: What are the facts about Medicare that they should be reporting?
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: 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.
Good luck with that.
The traditional media loves being in the in-crowd, the Right understands that, and has manipulated the conversation. That goes for Social Security and just about every other issue. What Greider is describing is not terribly different from what Glenn has revealed about the traditional media in the WikiLeaks case.
What has to happen is a counter-narrative from Democratic leadership. A handful of good, progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders and Raul Grijalva have been on the beat, but have been too easily marginalized as “lefties,” even though they are stating easily verified facts. They need to be joined by more courageous Dems who are willing to buck the conventional wisdom and turn it on its head.