A Tale of Two Medicare Reforms: Obama's Benign "Overhaul" vs. GOP's Scary "Big Cuts"

A lead story by Jeff Zeleny and John Harwood shows that the Times has lost its false fear of "big cuts" in Medicare when they're proposed by Barack Obama.

With a liberal Democrat coming to power, it seems the Times has gotten overthe false fear of "big cuts" in Medicare it displayed when Republicans tried to trim the program back in 1995.

Thursday's lead story by Jeff Zeleny and John Harwood, "Obama Promises Bid To Overhaul Retiree Spending," characterized the president-elect's stated willingness to tackle huge entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare in mostly positive terms. The reporters described Obama's vague proposal as an "overhauling," an "approach to rein in Social Security and Medicare," and an "effort to cut back the rates of growth of the two programs."

President-elect Barack Obama said Wednesday that overhauling Social Security and Medicare would be "a central part" of his administration's efforts to contain federal spending, signaling for the first time that he would wade into the thorny politics of entitlement programs.


Speaking at a news conference in Washington, he provided no details of his approach to rein in Social Security and Medicare, which are projected to consume a growing share of government spending as the baby boom generation ages into retirement over the next two decades. But he said he would have more to say about the issue when he unveiled a budget next month.

Should he follow through with a serious effort to cut back the rates of growth of the two programs, he would be opening up a potentially risky battle that neither party has shown much stomach for. The programs have proved almost sacrosanct in political terms, even as they threaten to grow so large as to be unsustainable in the long run. President Bush failed in his effort to overhaul Social Security, and Medicare only grew larger during his administration with the addition of prescription drug coverage for retirees.

The headline's subhead noted the "potential for risky fight" over the move, which Obama has provided no details on. Still, the story cast his vague "overhaul" in positive terms. Compare that to how the paper treated the last serious attempt to fix Medicare, back in the mid-1990s.

After taking over Congress in 1994, Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress proposed to slow the growth of the Medicare program by slicing spending by around $250 billion over a seven-year period. That would have trimmed the Medicare programs annual growth rate from 10 percent to around 7-to-8 percent - not an actual spending cut, just a slowdown in the rate of spending increase. But the GOP's gallant (and failed) attempt to at least somewhat rein in the growth of Medicare spending was falsely blasted by the media as butchering the safety net with "big cuts."

A front-page Times story on October 26, 1995 was headlined: "Americans Reject Big Medicare Cuts, a New Poll Finds." A May 8, 1995 front-page headline read: "Gingrich Promises Big Medicare Cut With Little Pain."

The paper's myriad inaccuracies were documented by the MRC's Tim Graham in July 1996. Reviewing 18 months of news stories, Graham found that the Times used the false description of "cuts" far more often than more accurate terms like "cuts in growth." He wrote:

The New York Times filed 508 stories matching the search terms, with 386 references to "cuts." Reports of "savings" came on 144 occasions, "cuts in growth" on 112, and "cuts in projected spending" on 76. On May 11, 1995, reporter David Sanger wrote: "But when it came to the details, they balked at many of the most extreme cuts, from the deepest slashes in Medicare to the elimination of the Commerce Department."

On October 27, the Times reported a controversy over its poll question: "If you had to choose, would you prefer balancing the budget or preventing Medicare from being significantly cut?"