News Coverage Skews View of Social Security Reform

     According to the most recent Washington Post /ABC poll, President Bushs plan to restructure the Social Security system has lost public support. What the poll doesnt tell you is that the network news has focused so much on the liberal side of this debate that the result isnt a surprise. Its a self-fulfilling prophecy.

     The Post story stated, 58 percent of those polled this time said the more they hear about Bush's plan, the less they like it. And what are they hearing about Bushs plan? That its a bad idea, of course. The networks have been beating up the idea of restructuring Social Security for months.

     A new study by the Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute finds that the evening news shows delivered liberal talking points on the Social Security debate more than twice as often as points from the conservative side advocating restructuring Social Security. The idea of personal retirement accounts doesnt stand a chance with numbers like those.

     The study looked at the evening news programs on CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN and Fox between Nov. 15, 2004, and March 15, 2005. This time frame covered the heart of Bushs proposal to reform Social Security from soon after his re-election through the launch of his 60 stops in 60 days campaign. The study examined use of liberal and conservative talking points in Social Security stories as part of an ongoing analysis of media coverage of this debate.

     CNN and CBS battled it out for the honor of being the worst. Fifty-six percent of the CBS stories had a liberal leaning compared to just 20 percent conservative. Over at CNN, it was 61 percent liberal and 22 percent conservative. Although the tally was close, CBS won by undermining conservative positions whenever possible.

     Russ Mitchell of CBS Evening News wouldnt even give the president credit for facts that are indisputable. According to Mitchell, Mr. Bush said hes open to any good idea to fix a system he claims is heading for bankruptcy. Bush doesnt have to claim the system is going bankrupt. According to the Social Security Administration Trustees, benefits paid to retirees will exceed payroll taxes collected by 2017. By 2041 the system will be totally broke.

     Mitchells report was the tip of the CBS iceberg. CBS reporter John Roberts said Bush turned down a modest increase in weekly payroll taxes to save the system. A modest increase in payroll taxes is just another band-aid that has been done 20 times before, and the system is still headed for bankruptcy.

     Proponents of increasing payroll taxes claim that 1.89 percent more is needed from each paycheck. That modest amount is equal to a 15 percent increase in our current Social Security tax burden, but dont count on CBS to do the math. On several occasions, they had financial planners try to calculate the possible impact of personal accounts. Twice, CBS mistakenly had young people retiring at age 65, even though the age they can retire and receive full benefits is currently 67. One of the planners CBS spoke with said, The human brain has been wired for social interactions, not analyzing numbers. CBS needs to do a little more research on the Social Security systems future insolvency. This is not advanced calculus, it is simple arithmetic.

     CNN had almost as bad of a liberal tilt as CBS. According to CNN Political Analyst Bill Schneider, Reducing guaranteed benefits seems to be part of the presidents solution, but most Americans think thats not the solution, thats the problem. The real problem is the medias refusal to report the fact that if nothing is done, benefits will be reduced big time. If Congress fails to act, they are guaranteeing benefits will be reduced, taxes will be raised or both. That vital point got lost in the endless he said/she said debate.

     The only bright spot in the study was coverage by the Fox News Channel. Critics like to target Fox for its use of the slogan fair and balanced. Guess what? Their coverage of the issue was exactly as advertised. Fox registered 30 percent with more liberal talking points and another 30 percent with more conservative ones. The remaining stories were neutral. Democratic leaders made regular appearances promoting their side of the debate. Not exactly a right-wing bastion, but compared to the left-wing tilt at the other networks, it must seem like it.

     Network news should be about accurate information the foundation all of us need to consider personal accounts as a way to fix Social Security. The idea of personal accounts involves personal accountability. Come to think of it, accountability is a good idea for TV news. Too bad they dont embrace it.


Herman Cain, former president and chairman of Godfather's Pizza, Inc., former senate candidate in Georgia, and former CEO of the National Restaurant Association, is now the national chairman of the Media Research Center's Business & Media Institute. Dan Gainor is director of the Business & Media Institute.
This op-ed ran in Investors Business Daily on May 17, 2005.