Texas Governor George W. Bush hasn't unveiled his Social Security reform plan yet, but the media are already deriding it as a neophyte's political gaffe. Here's how journalists are aiding the effort to undermine privatization: first, echo Vice President Al Gore's "risky scheme" spin; then appear balanced by hitting Gore on his over-the-top rhetoric; and finally portray Gore's plan to hijack the surplus to increase benefits as "conservative."
Step One: Call it a Crap Shoot As the networks tell it, the GOP wants to take old people's money down to the casino and put it all on double sixes. "Bush says let Americans bet their future Social Security income on Wall Street; Gore says bad idea," teased Dan Rather at the top of the CBS Evening News on May 1.
"Would you bet your Social Security on the stock market? Governor Bush says why not?" echoed NBC's Tom Brokaw on the Nightly News that same evening.
The media's gambling-with-other-people's money analogy misrepresents privatization, most forms of which would allow, but not force, workers to privately invest their own hard-earned money as they saw fit in stocks, government bonds or even federally-insured CDs, much as many workers do now with IRAs or 401(k)s.
Such spin also maligns the proven long-term security of stock markets, which are still a good deal even though investors have taken a pounding in recent weeks (thanks in part to the Clinton-Gore prosecution of Microsoft). Since the 1920s, stocks have made money for investors during every twenty year period, including during the Great Depression.
Still, journalists' fearful fretting conveniently matches Gore's campaign script. "Risky ideas that look good in good times don't look so good when times change," Gore told NBC's Claire Shipman on May 1.
Step Two: Feign Balance Gore was criticized by some reporters for his hyperbolic negativity: "Words like 'irresponsible,' 'risky' and 'smug' are mantras as Al Gore, day by day, methodically rips apart George Bush's proposals," scolded CNN's Candy Crowley on Inside Politics May 3. On Face the Nation on May 7, CBS's Bob Schieffer asked Sen. Charles Schumer whether Gore's rhetoric might have gone "a little far in that?"
Despite the reprimands, the media are helping Gore raise red flags about Bush's plan while they're ignoring the Vice President's own scheme. That's not balance, but a win for Gore.
Step Three: Say Gore Is the Real Conservative Aping Clinton, Gore advocates keeping federal income tax rates artificially high, so that surplus revenues can be used to pay down the national debt and interest payments now about $200 billion a year can be diverted to Social Security. Using general tax revenues to prop up the rickety 1930s program won't boost its rate of return (now well under 2%), but no one called it risky business. NBC's Shipman labeled Gore's plan "costly but conservative," although she quoted unnamed critics who called his plan "a temporary fix at best."
Shipman didn't tell viewers that the "conservative" Gore has proposed expanding Social Security benefits for women. Even the liberal Washington Post has choked on that, ridiculing Gore in an editorial. "'Save Social Security first' has been the mantra of the Clinton-Gore administration," said the Post on April 6. "Now we know how Al Gore proposes to do it. He will solve the long-term mismatch between projected revenues and costs by...adding significantly to the costs."
But will the media ever label that a "risky scheme"? - Rich Noyes