- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

This was the year those highly paid bogeymen in the national news media told us many bad things threatened the U.S. economy, our democracy and our quality of life.

Of course, things didn’t turn out the way these gloom-and-doom merchants said, but don’t expect the age-old practice of journalism-through-fear to end.

Remember all those overheated news stories about voters being denied the right to register and vote, raising fears of vote fraud and ballot box debacles that would paralyze our electoral process, a la Florida 2000? Legions of battle-ready lawyers were said to be on standby in key battleground states to litigate the outcome of the presidential election.

But the story of 2004 was one of record voter registration and turnout. With the exception of a few recounts and some suspiciously new-found ballots in Washington state’s disputed gubernatorial election, the voting was relatively problem-free.

Throughout much of this year, the specter of rising oil prices was said to threaten the U.S. economy. We were told $50-per-barrel oil and $2-per-gallon gas prices could crush consumer spending and tip the U.S. economy into recession.

But consumers kept spending and America’s resilient $11 trillion economy weathered the oil prices quite nicely, boosting the gross domestic product by a robust 4 percent. Oil and gas prices, as inventories rose, eventually fell.

The flu vaccine shortages were the next specter, and seemed serious. But Americans coped, health authorities acted and new vaccine supplies eventually became more readily available, and not just to the most vulnerable.

Looking for new grounds to sensationalize, the media fear-mongers now target the No. 1 item on President Bush’s 2005 agenda: Social Security reform. A cooked-up story in The Washington Post, which has its own agenda, is the latest example of how far some of the media will go to stir up public fears by selectively omitting key ingredients of Mr. Bush’s proposed investment retirement account plan.

Leave out things like “voluntary,” “bonds” and “diversified mutual funds” from any description of what Mr. Bush proposes and the story becomes a deliberately distorted attempt to create anxiety among workers who generally like the idea.

The Post’s Page One story last week was based on a poll it conducted on Dec. 19 that asked people if they could back a plan that let workers put part of their Social Security payroll taxes “in the stock market.” Fifty-three percent said they would, and 44 percent would not. The poll also asked if people would support such a plan if “the stock market went down,” about as loaded a question as you can imagine.

In response, the Post reported, “62 percent said they would not participate in such a program if it meant their retirement income would go up or down depending on the performance of their stock picks — which is the essence of Bush’s plan.”

Well, that’s not true. The essence of Bush’s plan is much broader than The Post’s tilted description, and there would be no “stock picks.”

Mr. Bush’s proposal would allow workers to voluntarily invest a small part of their payroll taxes in stock or bond funds, or a combination, through balanced, broad-based, highly diversified mutual funds. These are the same kind of funds tens of millions of Americans of all incomes invest in now. The same kind of funds federal employees can invest their pension contributions, including many members of Congress in both parties. These would be government-approved low- or no-risk funds.

For example, a worker could choose a mixed bond fund that pays a fixed interest rate, or a fund that invests only in Treasury bonds — securities backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, which banks and many mutual funds buy because they are the safest investment on the planet.

Workers could also invest in government-approved, highly diversified stock funds, made of large-cap, blue-chip companies, which would pay an even higher yield over time. Or they could invest in a “balanced fund” combining stocks and bonds and reducing risk even further.

None of this is mentioned in The Post’s story. It’s all angled on the stock market, which in the short term does rise and fall, and thus seeks to play on fears of future market declines.

But the essence of Mr. Bush’s plan is simply that such investments over a working life will provide workers a higher income than Social Security, which pays a paltry 1 percent to 2 percent return for most people, and a negative return for many others, especially minorities.

Playing on people’s fears is dishonest and manipulative journalism. But this, unfortunately, is what we see more and more of in this business. Let the news buyer beware.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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