BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. When we covered the coverage of the State of the Union address last week, media watcher David Brock noted that the fact checking so prominent on television during the political debates had fallen off. And that's particularly troublesome when the president's biggest issue is nigh on to impenetrable to begin with - Social Security reform, or modification, or privatization, or personalization, or whatever. The president spent the week stumping for his plan in friendly states across the country, and his opponents fired back with a fusillade of ads, resulting in a lot of TV heat, but not much light. So, we thought we would check in with Brooks Jackson, whose website FactCheck.org was widely read during the debates to see if he could highlight some of the most repeated whoppers from both sides. Brooks, welcome back.
BROOKS JACKSON: Glad to be back, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is this accurate?
BROOKS JACKSON: By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt.
BROOKS JACKSON: The term "bankruptcy" is one that I think does mislead some people, because a bankrupt company, of course, gets liquidated; goes out of business. That's not what Social Security is headed for, under current projections, either by the Social Security Administration itself or by the more independent Congressional Budget Office. Both say that, within a few decades, the Social Security system will exhaust its resources - even the trust fund that it's built up over the years - and at that point, either taxes are going to have to be increased, or benefits are going to have to be cut from the levels that they will have reached at that point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many decades are we talking about?
BROOKS JACKSON: Social Security actuaries project the year 2042. Congressional Budget Office think it's got another decade before that happens - 2052.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what you basically found when you fact-checked this is that bankruptcy is just a misnomer, because it doesn't mean that the system goes out of business. It means, in fact, that at most, in 40 or 50 years, people will have reduced benefits of up to 30 percent.
BROOKS JACKSON: I don't think we would call it a misnomer. We just note that some people could get the wrong idea from using that term.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't call it a misnomer? Why don't you call it a misnomer?
BROOKS JACKSON: Democrats have used the same term.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why isn't it a misnomer? Just because it's used badly in a bipartisan way?
BROOKS JACKSON: We just think that the term bankruptcy can give people the wrong impression, and that's the way we're stating it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the cornerstone of the Bush plan, personal accounts, in no way addresses Social Security running out of money.
BROOKS JACKSON: Not according to a senior White House official, just before the State of the Union, that very day, gave an on-the-record briefing, for background, and yes, that senior official said personal accounts or private accounts, depending on which term you want to use, would be a wash in terms of helping or hurting the fiscal situation of Social Security, because heavy borrowing would be required in the early decades of such a plan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think it's interesting, then - and this is a question of nuance rather than fact - that, by placing the impending bankruptcy, as the president puts it, of Social Security next to his plan for personal accounts, he might give the impression that personal accounts somehow addresses the issue of bankruptcy.
BROOKS JACKSON: Well, I think that's exactly the impression he wants to give, and I believe, in his mind and the mind of many advocates, there is an advantage to doing this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But not one that addresses the issue of bankruptcy.
BROOKS JACKSON: In this way, they would say: in order to get changes to the system, to make it sustainable over time, some sacrifices are going to be required, and personal accounts are a sweetener that you can offer, at least to younger workers, giving them the opportunity, the chance, to get a better return over time than they might under the current system, and in that sense, they are part of the solution that the Bush administration foresees.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hm. The assertion that the president made that the personal accounts would yield a higher rate of return - you fact-checked that as well, and it's not so clear. Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, said it isn't actually likely.
BROOKS JACKSON: History is on the president's side here, if you look at what the stock market has done. Historically, over the past two centuries, it's returned an average real rate of return after inflation of between 6 - closer to 7 - percent. But it's not guaranteed, of course. The president, in his State of the Union, said these accounts will do better over time. Well, that's not certain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bush also described the money this way.
GEORGE W. BUSH: And best of all, the money in the account is yours, and the government can never take it away. [APPLAUSE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: True or false?
BROOKS JACKSON: True, only in a very limited sense. That money is not going to be yours to do with what you want while you're working. You can't take it out. You can't get a loan against it. You can't invest it in anything but the broad mutual funds, maybe four or five of them, that the government says you can. And once you retire, even then, most or all of the money, depending on your situation, is going to have to go to purchase an annuity - a guaranteed stream of income for life - and for a lot of people, perhaps even the majority or the vast majority, that's going to be all the money.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you've also fact-checked a few of the organizations with a stake in Social Security overhaul. Let's start with the MoveOn.org TV ad. [TAPED AD PLAYS, MUSIC UNDER]
VOICEOVER: First someone thought up the working lunch. Then, we discovered the working vacation. And now, thanks to George Bush's planned Social Security benefit cuts of up to 46 percent to pay for private accounts, it won't be long before America introduces the world to the working retirement.
BROOKS JACKSON: Well, what you don't see on radio is that some white-haired persons, obviously all of them over 65, lifting boxes and shoveling and mopping floors - the clear impression that this ad's created to make is that people who are over 65 are going to have their benefits cut up to 46 percent. That's just not true. The president's said over and over again that nobody over age 55, now, would be affected. We called it a false ad, because of the juxtaposition of words and pictures.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you also took issue with the print ad produced by the AARP, which is the largest lobbying group for seniors.
BROOKS JACKSON: That's a full page newspaper ad that's appeared a lot of places, basically making the point that there will be some risk involved in these personal accounts, or private accounts, whichever terminology you use, and that's right. What they're showing is a commodities trading pit where, if you look closely in the background, sugar futures and cocoa futures are being traded, and that's just an absolute false representation of the particular kind of risk that's envisioned for these accounts. Broad mutual funds is what you'll be allowed to invest in. You're not going to be allowed to speculate in cocoa futures.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
BROOKS JACKSON: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brooks Jackson is the director of Annenberg Political Fact Check, otherwise known as FactCheck.org. [MUSIC]