Another example of the news media turning discussions of important issues into a fight between personalities.

I know I’m not the first to point out the proclivity of the mass media to turn discussions of important issues into fights between people.  Instead of discussing the issues in a rational way or seeking to sift the truth from the obfuscation, the media prefers to focus attention on polls, slips-of-the-tongue, gotcha’s, false accusations and personal matters.

But could they trivialize the important issue of preserving and strengthening Social Security?  From the viewpoint of this left-leaning liberal, the current Social Security battle is between those who want to tweak what is a very financially strong system to make it stronger versus those who want to address the federal deficit by having the federal government default on the loans it has borrowed from the Social Security Trust Fund.

But New York Times reporter, Robert Pear has found a way to turn it into a battle between two personalities, Stephen C. Goss, Social Security’s chief actuary who has worked for the Social Security Administration (SSA) for 37 years, and Michael J. Astrue, the Bush II-appointed Social Security Commissioner.

Keep in mind that the news impetus for his article in this past Sunday’s Times is the fact that two Congressional committees begin hearings on Social Security this week.  In the article, Pear raises none of the issues that may be under discussion at these hearings.

Instead, Pear’s lengthy article:

  • Quotes a number of Democratic Senators and Congresspeople on how great an actuary Goss is and the need for the Chief Actuary to be independent
  • Details examples of past tensions between the two men, all about power struggles and bad performance reviews
  • Reprints a “nice-nice” comment from SSA’s spokesperson.

But nowhere in the article is there any discussion of what opinions these men hold.  Let me repeat: But nowhere in the article is there any discussion of what opinions these men hold.

The entire article boils down to a personality squabble, and not the important policy differences that must exist between a man who has worked all his life to keep Social Security solvent and a political appointment by an avowed enemy of Social Security.

Pear is able to share an example of an actuary and a political appointee clashing over an issue, but its six years old and concerns a different actuary, the one whom a Bush II administration official threatened to fire if he provided Democrats with his cost estimates for the new prescription drug benefit.

Despite an easy-to-access public record, Pear is unable or unwilling to come up with the substantive differences between the men and talks only of the struggle itself.  I spent about 30 seconds on the Internet to discover in the recent past Goss has said such things as Social Security is solvent for at least 25 years and that in its projections, Social Security could comfortably raise the estimated rate of return for the money it loans the federal government.  Another quick search revealed that since becoming Commissioner Astrue has rarely missed an opportunity to say something negative about the future of Social Security.  For example, when the first baby boomer applied for Social Security, he said, “We are already feeling enormous pressure from baby boomers being in their peak disability years …”  

Now why would Pear not discuss the issues from the point of view of these apparent adversaries and instead of  focusing on the fact of their disagreement alone?  It’s hard to come to any other conclusion other than the obvious:  Pear wants to move the story of Social Security away from issues and to the same old dreary personality battles that pock election and legislative coverage.

It’s called trivialization of the news and if there were an award for it, I would certainly nominate this article for 2010.

4 comments on “Another example of the news media turning discussions of important issues into a fight between personalities.
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