CNNs Henry Misrepresents Personal Accounts Polls

CNNs Henry Misrepresents Personal Accounts Polls
Claims public doesnt support private accounts, but facts show otherwise.

By Dan Gainor
June 22, 2005

     Even as President Bush endorsed a new Social Security plan that didnt focus on personal accounts, poor coverage of the reform issue continued. This time, it was CNNs Ed Henry claiming that people dont support personal accounts even though that isnt the case.

     According to Henry, on the June 21, 2005, Inside Politics, We see polls across the board saying that the public by and large doesnt support private accounts. Henry didnt cite any of the polls showing this overwhelming opposition. Henry didnt even bother to quote from the skewed poll done by CNN/USA Today/Gallup from April 1-2, 2005.

     That poll asked how people felt about an idea that would allow people to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market and bonds, but would reduce the guaranteed benefits when they retire. The question ignored the obvious upside that, on average, investing offers a far greater return than Social Security and focused on the loss of retirement benefits. The question skipped the fact that Social Security is running out of money entirely. That last fact means Social Security will be unable to pay full benefits as of 2041 a guaranteed reduction in benefits when they retire.

     Polls have been amazingly consistent about the overall view of Social Security. They show that the public truly does understand that Social Security is in crisis. They also support raising taxes on others, not themselves, and oppose benefit cuts or raises of the eligibility age. In short, most people want their cake and want to eat it all through retirement. They just dont expect that to happen.

     But the polls also show support for, not opposition to, personal accounts. Here are a few from that show what Henry should have reported:

     A mid-March poll from the liberal Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed 44 percent in favor of private retirement accounts compared with 40 percent opposed.

     A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll from April 25-26, 2005, showed overwhelming support for personal accounts. Respondents were asked the following: [D]o you think people under age 55 should have the right to choose between keeping all of their contributions in the current system and investing a portion of their contributions. Seventy-nine percent said yes to that question. Another 53 percent said they would want the choice to invest on their own.

Slanted Questions

     Polls that showed opposition to personal accounts often relied on loaded questions. The CBS News/New York Times poll of June 10-15, 2005, claimed a slightly larger number opposed personal accounts than supported them 50 percent opposed to 45 percent for. But that result ignored the slant of the question, which emphasized that this plan would involve greater risk. Even with that, the numbers werent far apart in the latest study and were dead even only two weeks earlier.

     The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from May 12-16, 2005, was even more deceptive, asking respondents whether it was good or bad to invest their Social Security in the stock market. That question wasnt even accurate. Personal accounts proposals would allow individuals to place money in a small mix of stocks and bonds similar to the federal Thrift Savings Plan, not directly into the stock market. Unsurprisingly, there was opposition to that loaded question. Opponents barely managed more than half (56 percent) despite the skewed question.

     The news media also have focused on presidential approval to measure support for personal accounts, but that is far from a fair measure of how people feel about controlling their own retirement. Take this question from an ABC News/Washington Post poll: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling Social Security? Given the focus on the president, that question guarantees anyone who voted against him will automatically say he or she disapproved.

     CNNs Henry said, later in the program, But it does not appear the public is buying private accounts right now. How can you turn that around? The most obvious way Henry could have answered his own question would be with improved media coverage of both sides of the reform debate.

     A recent study from the Media Research Centers Business & Media Institute found Social Security coverage on the five major networks biased toward the left by a margin of 2 to 1. In total, 44 percent of the 125 stories studied were liberally slanted compared to just 22 percent that were conservative. The study was released in three parts. Here is the first part: