17/12/04 ACTIVISM UPDATE: CBS Acknowledges— But Doesn’t Include— Bush “Critics” on Social Security

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On December 13, FAIR issued an action alert, directed at CBS Evening News and CNN’s NewsNight, in response to misleading or unbalanced reports on Social Security that aired on December 9. CBS appeared to respond to those criticisms on the December 15 broadcast of CBS Evening News. But the network’s admission fell short of actually providing balanced Social Security coverage.

Reporting from Bush’s economic summit, CBS correspondent John Roberts continued to stress that Social Security faces an imminent shortfall: “Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security safety net is quickly developing huge financial holes.”

Roberts added: “In 2042, Social Security will become insolvent, and today’s young workers risk losing their benefits.” An on-screen graphic explained that the workers-to-retirees ratio has been declining since the 1930s, with the final entry for the year 2042 reading: “Insolvent = 0 benefits?” That claim is inaccurate; according to the Social Security trustees report, without any changes whatsoever, the program will still be able to pay 73 percent of scheduled benefits in 2042. Even this portion of future benefits would be as much or more than retirees receive today.

And these projections are based on the assumption that future economic growth will be much slower than in the past; if growth over the next few decades resembles that of the last century, there will be no shortfall at all.

Roberts also claimed that “President Bush wants to mend the holes, allowing workers to invest a small portion of their weekly payroll taxes in stocks and bonds that will grow or fall with the market.” But moments later, Roberts seemed to contradict the notion that privatization would fix the shortfall, saying that “private accounts don’t address the overall funding problem.” As other news accounts have shown, privatization does nothing to address Social Security’s alleged shortfall (New York Times, 12/14/04).

After Roberts finished his report, anchor Dan Rather offered an unusual post-script:

“You may want to note that many critics of the president’s ideas insist Social Security is not in nearly the trouble that Mr. Bush and some others say it is. Their view is that the president is overstating the case to serve special interests such as Wall Street investment houses. The argument figures to continue for a long while.”

While it is encouraging that Rather acknowledged that there are differences of opinion, CBS should do more than mention them at the end of a segment; instead, they should include those perspectives in their reporting. If, as Rather, suggests, the “argument figures to continue for a long while,” why not allow that argument to be heard on your newscast?

CBS’s apparent aversion to a real debate was demonstrated again on December 16, when Roberts took a look, in Rather’s words, “at what the Bush plan would mean to you.” Although Rather prefaced the segment by noting that “opponents disagree with the president’s view of the problem and his solution,” such disagreement was not evidenced by CBS’s two interview subjects. One declared, inaccurately, that “by the time I get to be the age to accept Social Security, there won’t be any there for me to accept”; the other was said to agree that Social Security faces a “looming financial train wreck.” On the question of privatization, the second guest favored it, while the first was, in Roberts’ words, “on the fence.”

To really inform its audience about the issues involved in Social Security privatization, a much broader range of debate is needed.

ACTION: Encourage CBS to expand its coverage of Social Security to include critics of Bush’s privatization plan. Tell them that acknowledging such dissenting opinions without including them is not enough.

CONTACT: CBS Evening News Phone: 212-975-3691

As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone. Please send a copy of your correspondence to

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