Politics & Policy

A Study in Bias

Bush's Social Security proposal isn't getting a fair airing.

According to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll, President Bush’s plan to restructure the Social Security system has lost public support. What the poll doesn’t tell you is that the network news has focused so much on the liberal side of this debate that the result isn’t a surprise. It’s 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 Bush’s plan? That it’s 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 Center’s Free Market Project 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 doesn’t 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 a period from shortly after Bush’s reelection to the launch of his “60 stops in 60 days” campaign. The study examined the 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 most biased. Fifty-six percent of the CBS stories had a liberal leaning, compared with 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 wouldn’t even give the president credit for facts that are indisputable. According to Mitchell, “Mr. Bush said he’s open to any good idea to fix a system he claims is heading for bankruptcy.” Bush doesn’t 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.

Mitchell’s report was the tip of the CBS iceberg. CBS reporter John Roberts said Bush rejected the possibility of saving the system with a “modest increase in weekly payroll taxes.” But this modest increase in payroll taxes is just another Band-Aid that has been done many 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. In addition, raising payroll would impose an unacceptable burden on taxpayers. That “modest” amount is equal to a 15-percent increase in our current Social Security tax burden.

But don’t 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.” But seeing the Social Security system’s future insolvency isn’t a matter of advanced calculus; it’s simple arithmetic.

CNN had almost as bad a liberal tilt as CBS. According to CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, “Reducing guaranteed benefits seems to be part of the president’s solution, but most Americans think that’s not the solution, that’s the problem.” Of course, if nothing is done to reform Social Security, benefits will be reduced, or taxes raised, or both. But this vital point got lost in CNN’s reporting.

The only bright spot in the study was coverage by the Fox News Channel. Fox’s critics like to target its slogan “fair and balanced.” But Fox’s coverage of the issue was exactly as advertised. Fox registered 30 percent liberal talking points and 30 percent conservative ones. The remaining stories were neutral. Democratic leaders made regular appearances on Fox to promote their side of the debate. Fox is no right-wing bastion, but compared with the left-wing tilt of other networks, it must seem like one.

Americans need accurate information in order to consider Social Security reform. Too bad the media can’t be counted upon to provide 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 Free Market Project.


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