There's a lot of talk about "personal accounts" coming from the White House lately. If you're thinking that's not squaring with everything you know about privatized Social Security, you're right: It's all in the spin. It's no coincidence that the White House is pushing for the warm and fuzzy "personal accounts," label. FAIR's Peter Hart wades through the semantic swamp and uncovers the real story.
Peter Hart is the activism director at the media watch group FAIR.
What's in a word? In the current debate over the future of Social Security, one word could be worth a few trillion dollars. And with George W. Bush hitting the road to sell his privatization scheme, reporters across the country have to make the decision about what to call it.
Facing significant opposition to its plan to privatize part of the Social Security program, the White House is pushing reporters and lawmakers to use the expression "personal accounts" instead of anything resembling "private accounts" or privatization. Why? It's simple, really: Polling data has long shown that, when given the choice, privatization is unpopular.
It's not unusual for politicians to try to spin the terminology used in debate. But journalists should avoid changing word usage simply because some politicians think it will be to their advantage. In the debate over Social Security, there's little doubt that "privatization" is a more accurate description of the White House plan, especially considering that the current system is already based on what are essentially "personal accounts"—your benefits depend on how much you personally have paid in, as the annual statements you get from the Social Security Administration indicate—rendering the Bush administration's preferred terminology redundant and confusing.
What is different about the accounts that Bush is proposing is not that they are personal, but that they will hold private-sector securities—in other words, that they will be privatized. For reporters trying to make a complex story easier to understand, this should be a no-brainer.
But some outlets endorse the notion that using any variation of the term "privatization" is politicizing the story. As Time magazine explained in its Jan. 10 edition, "Because Democrats have given the term 'privatization' a negative tinge, advocates prefer to call it 'personalization,' emphasizing control and ownership rights." NBC host Tim Russert said on Meet the Press on Jan. 23, "The president is proposing personal or private accounts, the vocabulary differs according to the ideology or the party using it."
But that's simply misleading. The term "privatization" was for years embraced by its proponents as an accurate description of their position. The Cato Institute, an influential pro-privatization Beltway think tank, called its program the "Project on Social Security Privatization" before renaming it "Project on Social Security Choice" in 2002 (New York Times , Oct. 6, 2002). That change was attributed to Republican lawmakers who wanted to avoid using an unpopular term to describe their policy.
This semantic debate is no accident. As the Washington Post reported on Jan. 23, "Republican officials have begun calling journalists to complain about references to 'private accounts,' even though Bush called them that three times in a speech last fall."
One would hope that in a debate as important as this one, reporters would resist this GOP spin. But the White House may be having some success: Carl Cameron of Fox News, in a Jan. 26 news conference question to George W. Bush, made reference to "those who opt into a potential private account"—before quickly correcting himself to say "personal account." He's not the only one: MSNBC's Chris Matthews recently did the same, while other reporters have taken to using both terms at once, referring to the Bush plan's "private or personal accounts," as if the two were interchangeable.
The Associated Press has also shown evidence of adopting the GOP's semantics; as CJR Daily pointed out on Jan. 25, last year reporter David Espo used the phrase "private accounts" 15 times in Social Security articles, while referring to the accounts as "personal" only once (Oct. 17, 2004; Dec. 6, 2004; Dec. 7, 2004). But this year, "private accounts" has nearly disappeared from his vocabulary: A Nexis search of his reports on Social Security through Jan. 26, 2005, turns up 16 references to "personal" accounts and only two to "private" accounts (outside of direct quotes).
Aside from echoing Republican spin, this semantic shift can muddle the story. In a Jan. 24 report, for example, Espo wrote that the AARP "released a nationwide poll today indicating deep public skepticism about President Bush's plan for personal accounts." But one paragraph later, he explained that AARP's poll asked about private— not personal—accounts.
The New York Times similarly confused the AARP poll; a Jan. 25 article on the Social Security debate, which made three references to "personal" accounts and only one reference to "private investment" accounts, reported that "the AARP released a poll showing little public support for personal accounts once the costs and tradeoffs involved in establishing them are made clear." By changing the terminology of the poll, the Times and the AP added extra layers of confusion and inaccuracy to what should be a fairly straight-forward story.
In the battle over Social Security's future, media coverage like this might be just the advantage the White House needs.