CNN's Zahn and Johns followed GOP talking points on Social Security: referred to "reform" and "private accounts" rather than privatization


During his November 4 press conference, President George W. Bush made clear that Social Security privatization would be at the top of his second-term agenda. But after the term "privatization" was deemed unpopular, a 2002 Republican memo directed "GOP incumbents and candidates" to "insist that reporters" not use the word to describe proposed Republican Social Security policy. On the November 8 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now, host Zahn and CNN congressional correspondent Joe Johns echoed Republican talking points on the issue, referring to Bush's plans as "reforming Social Security" and "creating private accounts in Social Security." Later that night, right-wing author and direct-mail pioneer Richard A. Viguerie proved this point during an appearance on CNN's NewsNight.

From the November 8 edition of CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown:

AARON BROWN (host): Do you feel strongly that Social Security needs to be in part privatized, if you will?

VIGUERIE: Well, conservatives think of it and Republicans, I think, Aaron, as private accounts, that young people -- we want to protect Social Security for those who are in the system now or about to come into the Social Security program.

But the young people now don't feel they're going to get the Social Security. And I think everybody pretty much recognizes it is broken. It's got to be fixed or it won't be there for the young people. And conservatives, Republicans, many Americans are excited about reforming Social Security. It just has to be done.

From the November 8 edition of CNN's Paula Zahn Now:

ZAHN: Longer-term [Bush] priorities include: tax simplification, reforming Social Security and education, plus Iraq and the war on terror.


JOHNS: But moderates and conservatives can disagree on more than just judges. From gay marriage to the Patriot Act to creating private accounts in Social Security, to tax cuts to tax reform, the math in the Congress works in the president's favor to stay the conservative course.

As journalist and blogger Joshua Micah Marshall noted in his Talking Points Memo weblog on September 6, 2002, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) issued a memo on August 26, 2002, that instructed "GOP incumbents and candidates" to "insist that reporters" not use the term "privatization." The memo claimed:

Democrats are doing all they can to blur the very important distinction between 'personal accounts' and 'privatization.' They are employing the word 'privatization' for the specific purpose of eliciting negative reactions among seniors because it carries connotations of dismantling the publicly run Social Security system. 'Privatization' is a false and misleading word insofar as it is being used by Democrats to describe Republican positions on Social Security.

But as Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor of the conservative National Review, stated in a September 4, 2002, National Review Online article:

The Republican memo is a piece of brazen historical revisionism. It pretends that the word "privatization" was invented by Democratic spinners and then accepted by a gullible media. It makes no mention of the incontrovertible fact that "privatization" was the term used by many Republican (and other) advocates of personal accounts until it turned out that the word didn't poll well.

Around the time the Republican memo was released, the conservative Cato Institute -- a long-time leading advocate of Social Security privatization -- abruptly and retroactively changed the name of its Project on Social Security Privatization to Project on Social Security Choice, as archived copies of the project's Web page from August 6, 2002, and September 14, 2002, demonstrate.

In the past, Zahn has described Bush's Social Security policy proposals as "privatization"; for example, on October 7, she referred to "the Bush plan to privatize Social Security." November 8 was the first time since Bush's reelection that Zahn and Johns had addressed Bush's plans for Social Security. On the November 3 edition of Paula Zahn Now, CNN senior White House correspondent John King referred to "Social Security revamping" as one of Bush's "major initiatives."

Posted In
Economy, Social Security
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