WASHINGTON -- February 8 -- In its February 3 edition, USA Today not only failed to challenge a George W. Bush distortion about Social Security-- it actually changed Bush's remarks to make them more accurate.
Summarizing Bush's case for privatizing the program, reporter Judy Keen explained: "Two days after winning re-election, Bush said his top priority would be Social Security, which he says will go into the red in 2018 and won't have enough money to pay promised benefits in 2042." And in a Q & A piece, the paper made the same claim: Answering the question, "Is Social Security bankrupt?" the paper responded that "Bush says that in 2042, it won't be able to pay 100 percent of guaranteed benefits; CBO says 2052."
But Bush's claims about Social Security's solvency have not usually been so nuanced. In a January 11 appearance, Bush spoke of a system that would be "flat bust, bankrupt" by the time workers in their 20s were set to retire. And during the State of the Union address that prompted USA Today's coverage, Bush gave his most familiar description of Social Security's finances: "By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt."
That claim is misleading, if not completely false; the Social Security trustees, using very conservative assumptions about economic growth, predict that the program will be able to pay about 75 percent of benefits after 2042, while the Congressional Budget Office believes that point will come ten years later. Even then, the system will be able to pay more to future retirees than current recipients get; and some economists argue that if the economy grows about as quickly in the future as it has in the past, Social Security may in fact never run short of cash.
By changing Bush's false claim to a more accurate one, USA Today committed a serious journalistic error. The primary news value in Bush's comments was their deceptive nature; by "improving" them, USA Today did Bush a favor-- and its readers a disservice.
Ask USA Today to print a clarification noting that they mischaracterized Bush's claims about Social Security's demise.
Brent Jones, Reader Editor
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