Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Our Free Press is Failing Us

As a kid growing up, long before the Internet, I thought that any bit of substantive news that made it out of one source, such as a big-city newspaper, would inevitably get widely disseminated by other sources, another newspaper, then another, then the 6 o'clock news, the weeklies. It would all happen quickly and efficiently, whether you liked it or not.

Now, and only partly because of the Internet, several uneasy trends have become apparent:  1) that bit about "substantive news" getting widely disseminated was probably never true, though arguably more so than now, 2) news is more shallow and dumbed-down now than in the past, and 3) though the Internet has opened up numerous sites to tap for data and commentary, and has given us unprecedented opportunity to explore ever further afield, it has also made it easier for us to pursue our preferences and ignore the rest. In so doing, we have erected philosophical, ideological, and religious filters that tend to confirm our world views rather than challenge them.

Nor has the Internet compelled the mainstream media to be more balanced, or to even cover stories, viewpoints, and evidence that discerning readers--and alternative news enthusiasts-- know exist. And that can happen--is happening--with major subjects that affect us all.

Ask yourself how many corporate-owned news organizations are covering the efficacy of raising the payroll tax cap on Social Security. Over and over we hear the major outlets argue for, or repeat the talking points of the investor class on Social Security: it is in trouble, it is a big part of the budget deficit, and we need to cut benefits to those who desperately need it because doing so will narrow the federal deficit and somehow spur growth. Here is an example of how our feckless media allows conservative politicians to misrepresent Social Security.

The reality is that over the years Social Security garnered a roughly $2.5 trillion surplus, a surplus that Congress has tapped to fund other programs. And now Congress does not want to pay it back. Doing so would draw attention to ethically questionable action; messing with people's retirement. And yes, the claim that social security is nearly bankrupt, wrong in the first place, is especially galling given the surplus it ran up which Congress then "borrowed." The real kicker is that a simple tweak like raising the payroll tax would also reveal the viability of social security, which contradicts the mostly Republican narrative that Social Security is failing us. It should be clear now that Republicans don't actually want to strengthen social security. This is why they seem so tone deaf to simple solutions: They are not looking for solutions and they don't want talk of solutions to enter the debate. Policy experts, economists, and so many others have, often in great detail, made it clear the "sky-is-falling" talking points are egregiously inaccurate. Here are some facts on social security.

One may disagree on complex policy issues while acknowledging that there is room for alternative views. Our media should be asking why Congress does not remove the Social Security cap. Let opponents defend their refusal publicly. Challenge their insipid talking points. But we are not even having that debate, not publicly, not with any consistency or honesty.