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THE GEN-X FILES! George Bush won’t stop disinforming Gen X. Neither will CBS’ John Roberts: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, DECEMBER 13, 2004

THE GEN-X FILES: Has there ever been a policy issue driven by so much disinformation? In which so many bogus scripts were recited so long, by so many? We refer to the debate about Social Security, which we plan to watch closely in the next year. Has there ever been a policy matter in which so many American citizens were so aggressively disinformed?

Consider that semi-famous report by John Roberts on Thursday’s CBS Evening News. The report gained attention because Roberts (apparently) got snookered; he presented remarks by a youngster named Tad DeHaven, but didn’t say that DeHaven is an employee of the National Taxpayers Union, a pro-privatization group. If you watched the CBS program, it just sounded like some Average Schmoe was peddling DeHaven’s partisan line. But guess what? That wasn’t the really big problem with Roberts’ report. Let’s take a look at the transcript:

DAN RATHER (12/9/04): President Bush called again today for historic changes in the biggest, most successful retirement program in the world: Social Security. CBS' John Roberts reports on the plan, the cost, the battle ahead, and what it all means to you.

ROBERTS: Tad DeHaven could be the poster child for Social Security reform: 28 years old; a college graduate; in the work force for six years; getting married next May; expected to retire in 2042. That's the year Social Security goes broke.

DeHAVEN (videotape): I don't expect to get anything from Social Security, OK? I don't consider it in terms of my long-term planning and financing. It's not going to be there—that's my assumption.

ROBERTS: So Tad is fully on board the plan to establish private accounts for Social Security, to allow younger workers to invest a small portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market.

Yes, Robert presented a privatization activist as if he were just an Average Schmoe. But that wasn’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem is what DeHaven said—and the fact that Roberts made no attempt to balance, contradict or explain it.

As we saw last week, it’s part of The Script, plainly required by Hard Pundit Law; when scribes report on Social Security, they have to find a Generation X-er to offer DeHaven’s gloomy assessment. Social Security won’t be there for me, some gloomy late-20-something must say. On CBS, DeHaven pimped the script, but there really are plenty of Average Schmoes who will go on the air and recite it. For example, a gloomy 27-year-old, Chelsea Naja, recited for CNN’s Aaron Brown this same night (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/10/04). There is no reason to think that Naja is an activist. Plenty of younger Americans are ready to peddle this well-scripted message.

So what’s the big problem with Roberts’ report? Not the fact that DeHaven wasn’t identified. The big problem is the fact that DeHaven’s statement—which went unchallenged—was utterly, totally bogus! Chelsea Naja may not know it, but there is absolutely no chance that Social Security “won’t be there” when her cohort retires. If the system is left alone, it may not be able to pay full promised benefits (details below). But the chance that SS “won’t be there?” If the system is left alone, there is no chance that will happen. Chelsea Naja is hugely uninformed, and her statement was utterly bogus. But then, so were DeHaven’s remarks—and Roberts made no effort to challenge them.

Left alone, will Social Security “be there” for DeHaven? As Paul Krugman noted in last Tuesday’s column, a recent CBO report shows how silly his spin-point is—the spin-point we all hear incessantly. What did the CBO report say? If Social Security is left alone, it will be able to pay 81 percent of promised benefits to recipients in the year 2052 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/7/04). That’s not as good as 100 percent—but it’s absurd to say that the program “won’t be there.” But so what! DeHaven made a bogus claim, and Roberts made no attempt to rebut it. But so it has gone for the past fifteen years as the public gets baldly disinformed.

Todd DeHaven is an activist; presumably, Chelsea Naja is not. But why do so many younger people believe SS “won’t be there” for them? They believe it because of men like Roberts—and because of men like George Bush. Here was the president, bull-sh*tting again, in his radio address last Saturday:

BUSH (12/11/04): Good morning. Social Security is one of the great moral achievements of American government. For almost 70 years, it has kept millions of elderly citizens out of poverty and assured young Americans of a more secure future. The Social Security system is essential, yet it faces a deepening long-term problem.

While benefits for today's seniors are secure, the system is headed towards bankruptcy down the road. If we do not act soon, Social Security will not be there for our children and grandchildren.

President Bush is lying again—and scribes like Roberts stare into air. Social Security is not “headed towards bankruptcy,” and it’s absurd to say that the program “won’t be there” if we don’t take emergency measures now. Why is Naja so misinformed? Because people like Bush keep misinforming her. In a rational word, journalists like would challenge Bush’s remarks. In our world, they rush hacks on the air to repeat them.

Roberts put an activist on the air and let him recite some disinformation. But remember—the problem here was DeHaven’s comment, not his hidden identity. Is Roberts inept, or in the bag? We don’t have the slightest idea. But as we asked a moment ago: Has there ever been a policy issue driven by so much disinformation?

GOING FOR BROKE: Of course, Roberts recited the disinfo too. Using the more conservative projections of the Social Security trustees, Roberts says, in his own voice, that 2042 is “the year Social Security goes broke” (as noted, the CBO says the key year is 2052). But SS doesn’t “go broke” under either projection; under the trustees’ projection, 2042 is the year when Soc Sec could no longer pay full promised benefits. That’s a problem, but it isn’t “bankruptcy”—and no, the system wouldn’t be “broke.” Why does Naja think SS “won’t be there?” Because men like Roberts—and men like Bush—have disinformed her cohort for years. And yes, this is another tale of your “liberal press corps” in action.

MUST-READ WP: In this morning’s Post, Sebastian Mallaby offers useful info about Soc Sec. One complaint: He omits the most central fact of all—the system is not “going broke.”

TOMORROW: Peter the Great’s latest purge—and why Beinart sounds like a “soft.”