Casual readers misinformed by the Wisconsin State Journal

OK, for nine months we’ve been writing [mostly] about the editorial page of the Wisconsin State Journal. In those nine months we have never criticized the news pages. We don’t love the State Journal’s news pages; in particular we get frustrated with their Associated Press story picks. But we can and do cut slack. Our main regret for the State Journal news coverage is that their staff of local journalists is shrinking.

BUT this was frustrating:

The fact is, very bad reporting about the Social Security program has been going on for years. Every year the Social Security trustees issue a report, and every damn year many news outlets fuck up the reporting.

This year in advance of the trustee’s report, the Columbia Journalism Review featured an article by CJR contributing editor Trudy Lieberman, who practically predicted another round of poor reporting and scary, sure-to-be misunderstood headlines (emphasis added):

For nearly three years CJR has observed that much of the press has reported only one side of this story using “facts” that are misleading or flat-out wrong while ignoring others.

Whatever the reason—ideology, poor understanding of how the program works, gullibility, or plain old reportorial laziness—news outlets have given the public a skewed picture of the financial health of this hugely important program, which is the sole source of retirement funds for millions of Americans and will continue to be for decades to come.

In discussing this year’s numbers, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue warned reporters (emphasis added):

Please remember that ‘exhaustion’ is an actuarial term of art and it does not mean there will be no money left to pay any benefits. After 2033, even if Congress does nothing there will still be sufficient assets to pay about 75 percent of the current level of benefits. That’s not acceptable, but it’s still a fact that there will still be sufficient assets there.

Lieberman again (emphasis added):

… Many experts believe small fixes like lifting the cap on income subject to payroll taxes—$110,100 for 2012—will make Social Security solvent for decades. But that option is not on Washington’s table, nor has it been discussed much in the press. Why not?

The conservatives in Washington are so absolutely committed to their anti-tax pledges that they have no fix for Social Security… other than shrinking it and raising the age of eligibility further and further. (George Will mentioned age 74 the other day on “This Week” with Stephanopoulos.) Wall Street would love to privatize retirement planning so they could earn billions in management, advisory, and transactions fees, and if that were to happen, many of us would make terrible decisions, as is now commonly the case with 401k’s.

Or… of course, we could raise that cap Lieberman mentions above and solve the problem, a option not “discussed much in the press.”

This was a pure unforced error by the news editors of the State Journal. Many Americans, especially young adults, are being convinced, simply by repeat exposure to terrible headlines atop poor reporting that Social Security will “be dry by 2033”.

News media Incompetence or malice? Impossible to say. Neither would be good.