Sunday, March 13, 2005

In Discussing Social Security Privatization and Solvency, USA Today Offers Readers GOP Spin

One question JABBS has returned to again and again is, when are our nation's most-read newspapers and most-watched media outlets guilty of "political bias," versus simply suffering from sloppy, poorly researched reporting?

For today's lesson, look no further than the lead story in the March 10 issue of USA Today, an interview with the Bush Administration's top economic adviser on the administration's quest for Social Security privatization.

The story isn't new. It's been in the news on an almost-daily basis since November. Yet reading the USA Today article, you have to assume that the newspaper's research staff took the day off, so limited is the scope of this front-page effort.

"President Bush's No. 1 goal is passing legislation that permanently solves the solvency problem," USA Today quotes Allan Hubbard.

Read that quote, and you'd assume that solvency was the administration's top concern. But that runs counter with the first sentence of the story, which says that Hubbard "rejected as 'absolutely a non-starter' bipartisan proposals that the administration put aside its drive to create individual investment accounts in Social Security and focus first on extending the system's solvency."

Something's amiss here.

Unfortunately, USA Today doesn't appear to pay its writers to be thorough, for the question of solvency isn't really discussed again. It's the equivalent of a reporter writing about a football game and leading with a quote from one of the coaches that "we can only win if we keep the other guys under 20 points," and then never offering the final score.

What's worse, of course, is that by dangling that Hubbard quote about solvency without a Democratic retort on the issue, the reader is left with the incorrect impression that the Bush administration's privatization plan will lead to solvency.

But as reported on JABBS ( and elsewhere, the administration has admitted that "the personal accounts would have a net neutral effect on the fiscal situation of the Social Security and on the federal government."

But "net neutral effect" is really over a 75-year period, and using what would have to be assumed to be math that favors privatization. In the short-term, the administration projects it will borrow $754 billion through 2015 to finance the initial phase-in of the accounts, and others suggest the long-term costs could total more than $15 billion.

But USA Today can't be bothered with such silly facts -- even ones admitted to by the administration. It would rather lead with GOP spin, allowing its large readership to be woefully misinformed.

Biased? It would be easy for JABBS to say that the story suffers from "conservative media bias," but let's take the high road and call it what it is: sloppy, poorly researched reporting.


Before any conservative readers cackle "it's an interview with a Bush administration adviser ... what do you expect?" realize that the "interview" with Hubbard was short. After three paragraphs, Hubbard disappears from the story, as does much of the discussion on solvency.

There is a brief reference further down in the story to a letter written March 4 to President Bush, in which 42 Democratic senators called on him to "discuss solvency first." The article says that Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Charles Grassley of Iowa "have made similar comments."

But USA Today never cut through the back-and-forth to state the obvious: the administration has admitted that it's privatization plan does not address the administration's "No. 1 goal" -- solvency.


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