TV media echoed Bush spin on Social Security benefit cuts

Television news coverage of President Bush's April 28 press conference offered several misleading claims about Bush's proposed Social Security benefit cuts. Cable and network anchors and correspondents: 1) falsely suggested that benefit cuts would affect only high-income workers; 2) mischaracterized cuts in promised benefits as “slower increase[s] in benefits”; and 3) erroneously suggested that low-income workers will receive greater benefits under Bush's proposal than they are promised under the current system.

Ignoring middle-class benefit cuts

While television news reports acknowledged that Bush called for benefits cuts for “wealthier workers” or “higher-income” earners, many failed to report that these cuts would also impact lower-middle and middle-class workers. As Media Matters for America has noted, the Bush proposal would likely cut the level of guaranteed benefits promised under the current Social Security system for all workers making over $20,000 a year -- or just above the poverty threshold for a family of four with two children under 18 -- while leaving guaranteed benefit levels for those making under $20,000 unchanged.

  • NBC White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell reported that Bush's proposal “could mean, in the future, a cut of benefits for more wealthy Americans.” [MSNBC, Hardball, 4/28/05]
  • Fox News chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle claimed Bush's plan will “make sure that they [benefits] go up as much as possible for the poor and ... reduce the increase in benefits for the wealthy.” Angle later claimed that Bush's proposal will be “benefiting the poor, making this a system that tilts much more in favor of the poor and cutting the increase in benefits for the wealthy who can most afford it.” [Fox News, press conference coverage, 4/28/05]
  • Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume claimed that Bush's proposal involves “benefits which are diminished for the upper income people and enhanced perhaps or at least higher for lower income people.” Hume then suggested that those who will be affected by this proposal include “Ross Perot and Bill Gates,” but failed to note that anyone earning $20,000 or more a year is also in that group. [Fox News, press conference coverage, 4/28/05]
  • Fox News co-host Steve Doocy claimed that under Bush's proposal, “people who make a lot of dough will not wind up with as large a benefit as people at the bottom of the economic food chain.” [Fox News, FOX & Friends, 4/29/05]
  • CBS White House correspondent Bill Plante reported that Bush's plan “would reduce future benefits for the highest wage earners, but leave them as they are for those who make the least.” By Plante's definition, the “highest wage earners” who would face benefit cuts include those making over $20,000 a year. [CBS, Early Show, 4/29/05]
  • CNN co-host Jack Cafferty claimed that Bush proposed “reducing long-term benefits for the more affluent members of this society.” Cafferty later reported that Bush proposed cutting “future benefits for wealthier retirees,” and criticized newspaper headlines that suggested -- accurately -- that the benefits would be more widespread than Cafferty claimed: “Headlines in The New York Times and The Washington Post this morning scream that President Bush wants to cut Social Security benefits. Granted, he was talking about future benefits for wealthier retirees, but don't be fooled -- Social Security is called the third rail of politics for a reason.” [CNN, American Morning, 4/29/05]

Mischaracterizing benefit cuts as a slowdown of benefit increases

Cable news channels adopted Bush's characterization of his proposed benefit cuts as a proposed slowdown in the rate at which benefit levels go up. In fact, Bush proposed an actual cut in promised benefits for all but the lowest income workers, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

  • CNN host Wolf Blitzer reported that Bush “did make a case ... that lower-income Social Security recipients would get more increases more rapidly than the higher income Social Security recipients.” [CNN, press conference coverage, 4/28/05]
  • Fox News' Jim Angle claimed that under Bush's proposal “everyone would get an increase in benefits, but the poor under this approach would get a bigger increase, and the wealthy, who have other ways of saving for retirement, would get less. It is as simple as that.” [Fox News, press conference coverage, 4/28/05]
  • CNN co-host Bill Hemmer reported: “The president says his proposal for Social Security would increase benefits faster for low-income workers than for wealthier ones.” [CNN, American Morning, 4/29/05]
  • CNN co-host Soledad O'Brien and conservative San Francisco radio host Jeff Katz had this exchange during the “Gimme A Minute” segment:

    O'BRIEN: Last night, the president proposing during his news conference that Social Security benefits for lower income Americans increase more than for higher earning Americans. The headlines this morning say Social Security is being cut. Headlines wrong, Jeff?

    KATZ: Headlines are incredibly wrong. Social Security is not being cut. [CNN, American Morning, 4/29/05]

  • Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein reported that Bush “endors[ed] this notion that benefits in the future should grow faster for low- income people than middle and upper-income people as a way to close that long-term financing gap.” [CNN, American Morning, 4/29/05]
  • CNN host Carol Costello claimed that Bush proposed that “benefits for lower-income people should grow at a faster rate.” [CNN, American Morning, 4/29/05]

Claiming low-income workers would receive greater benefits than currently promised

Pundits on all three cable news channels falsely suggested that low-income workers would receive greater Social Security benefits under Bush's proposal than they are promised under the current Social Security system. In fact, according to the CBPP report, under the plan developed by Robert C. Pozen, upon which the Bush proposal is reportedly based, “low-earners would continue to receive the Social Security benefits promised under current law, which are based on a formula that uses 'wage indexing.'”

  • MSNBC host Chris Matthews echoed Bush's false claim that his plan will provide “extra help to those most in need” by asserting that “the less wealthy people who retire would be able to get what he [Bush] called extra benefits.” [MSNBC, Hardball, 4/28/05]
  • Fox News host Brit Hume claimed that under Bush's proposal for means testing, benefits would be “enhanced, perhaps ... for lower-income people.” [Fox News, press conference coverage, 4/28/05]
  • CNN anchor Carol Costello reported that Bush “says benefits for lower-income people should grow at a faster rate,” but failed to note that his proposal would not actually increase their benefits from what is currently promised. [CNN, American Morning, 4/29/05]
  • CNN host Jack Cafferty asserted that Bush's plan involves “preserving the benefits or maybe even increasing them at a greater rate for the poor among us.” [CNN, American Morning, 4/29/05]