Most major televised media outlets failed to note that President Bush, in his one-hour press conference on April 28, made two flatly contradictory statements about the viability of U.S. treasury bonds, in which the Social Security trust fund is invested. Repeating a claim made in his recent travels throughout the country in support of Social Security privatization, Bush said that the treasury bonds owned by the trust fund represent worthless IOUs from the U.S. government. But he later touted those same bonds for holders of his proposed private accounts looking for a safe investment that would be "backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government." No reporter challenged Bush on the contradiction during the press conference, and only George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC's This Week, noted it in the post-conference analysis.
And CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer did the rest of TV news media one better -- specifically noting that Bush mentioned treasury bonds as a safe investment, while failing to note that he has repeatedly disparaged treasury bonds when talking about the trust fund and did so again last night. Schieffer later commended Bush's performance in the press conference, saying "I think it's fair to say he did not step on his own story."
The Social Security trust fund is invested entirely in treasury bonds that, according to law, have been purchased with surplus payroll tax revenues. During the press conference, Bush dismissed the Social Security trust fund as little more than "file cabinets full of IOUs." Earlier in the press conference, however, Bush advocated an option that would allow wary private account holders to invest solely in those same treasury bonds, because they "are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government." Bush has used the "file cabinet" rhetoric in the past, such as at an April 15 town hall meeting in Ohio and when he visited the Bureau of Public Debt in West Virginia on April 5. His argument that the Social Security trust fund is a myth has been echoed by various conservatives in the media (here, here, and here).
A Media Matters for America analysis of the major cable and broadcast network coverage following the press conference revealed that Stephanopoulos was the sole commentator to note the president's contradictory trust fund rhetoric.
About seven minutes into ABC's press conference analysis, Stephanopoulos said:
STEPHANOPOULOS: He [Bush] got caught in a contradiction here. When he was talking about the treasury bonds and the overall Social Security system, he called them a file cabinet of IOUs. Yet, when they're in the individual accounts, they're backed by the full faith and credit of the United States.
From Schieffer's analysis of the president's press conference:
SCHIEFFER: He said at one point in the news conference that he certainly believes any reform package ought to include the idea of creating personal savings accounts. He said one option that those who choose the personal savings account might want is to invest only in treasury bills. He said that would ensure that it would be a safe investment for them. I believe that's the first time he's said that.
But the president came on television tonight because he wanted to talk about Social Security, and I think it's fair to say he did not step on his own story. I think there was no bigger headline than what he said about urging these reforms in Social Security tonight.