Dodgy Journalism: Time's Michael Scherer debates strawman, loses

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

UPDATE: Scherer has responded. My response to his response is here.

Under the header "Dodgy Politics: Using Old Votes to Obscure Current Policies," Time's Michael Scherer unsuccessfully debunks a claim Barack Obama didn't make in order to accuse the Democratic candidate of offering misleading criticisms of John McCain.


In the last couple days, Obama has shown an increased enthusiasm for playing this same dodgy game. ... In the first [ad], Obama says that McCain voted three times to privatize Social Security, and that he is willing to risk the nation's retirement program on the risky stock market. Now, it is true that McCain did support President Bush's effort to privatize a portion of Social Security. But it is not true that McCain is running for president on a platform of turning Social Security over to Wall Street.

I'm sure the McCain campaign appreciates Scherer's statement that "it is not true that McCain is running for president on a platform of turning Social Security over to Wall Street." But that statement is completely irrelevant to the ad Scherer purports to debunk. See, the ad doesn't say McCain is running on such a platform. It says McCain has voted in favor of privatization in the past, and supported Bush's privatization plan. Which Scherer acknowledges is true. But it doesn't accuse McCain of "running on" turning Social Security over to Wall Street; Scherer made that up in order to debunk it.

Scherer then quoted from McCain's web page:

Here is what his campaign says: "John McCain supports supplementing the current Social Security system with personal accounts -- but not as a substitute for addressing benefit promises that cannot be kept. John McCain will reach across the aisle to address these challenges, but if the Democrats do not act, he will."

But that doesn't really tell us anything. It certainly doesn't debunk anything in the Obama ad, since it is so vague as to be basically meaningless. It simply says he will "act" (how?) to address "benefit promises that cannot be kept" (how?) But to the extent that it does say something, it reiterates McCain's support for "personal accounts." That's the phrase Republicans turned to when their pollsters told them that "privatization" is wildly unpopular.

Indeed, multiple times this year, McCain has reiterated his support for "personal savings accounts" in which workers could "put part of their salary, part of their taxes into Social Security, into an account with their name on it."

That's Social Security privatization - or it was before the Republicans began browbeating reporters into calling it something else. So, John McCain has, multiple times during his presidential campaign, advocated allowing workers to divert part of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts. And yet Time's Michael Scherer insists that "it is not true that McCain is running for president on a platform of turning Social Security over to Wall Street" - a rebuttal to a claim that isn't present in the Obama ad Scherer pretends to debunk.

The result of all this is not only that Scherer has baselessly accused Obama of dishonesty. The bigger problem may be that Scherer made McCain's position on Social Security privatization less clear. Rather than explaining what McCain has done about the topic in the past, and quoting McCain's campaign statements, Scherer simply quoted a vague position paper statement and falsely asserted that McCain hasn't talked about private accounts during the campaign. In his rush to play "gotcha" on an ad, Scherer left his readers with little understanding of what McCain actually has said and done about Social Security privatization.

Posted In
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.