These days, video cameras follow candidates everywhere, from intimate meet-and-greets to massive political rallies, and when rivals dig into that footage, they face a choice. They can look for some unflattering off-the-cuff gaffe to embarrass their opponent, or they can cherry-pick and string together piecemeal quotes to make their challenger appear to be saying something he or she is not.
Elizabeth Esty’s campaign went with the latter option in a new ad taking aim at Fifth-District Congressional challenger Mark Greenberg’s stance on Social Security.
“You paid into it every paycheck,” the narrator states at the beginning of the ad, as a woman is shown watching Greenberg on a television. “But Mark Greenberg would end Social Security’s guarantee.”
And then that claim is purportedly backed up with Greenberg’s own words.
“Social Security is a failure as far as I’m concerned,” he is shown saying. And then after a quick reverse shot of the woman, he continues: “You gotta rely on your own system of retirement. Your self-retirement system. And not the Social Security system.”
The ad then shows an elderly man watching the television screen, clutching a cane, shaking his head in disapproval as Greeberg says “In that case, you’re off the public dole.”
As presented, there is only one plausible interpretation — that Greenberg, declaring Social Security a failure, supports eliminating the program’s defined-benefit guarantee and requiring individuals to fund their own retirements.
That would be an extreme position, and indeed the ad ends with the line: “Mark Greenberg. Too Extreme For Connecticut.”
But that is not Greenberg’s position, and that implication is created only through a creative and misleading editing of Greenberg’s words.
Let’s look at what he actually said. Greenberg did indeed declare Social Security a failure during a talk in February 2010, but his entire quote offers more context. “Social Security is a failure, as far as I’m concerned,” Greenberg told the Simsbury Republican Town Committee. “Because young people, in this day and age, in my opinion, have very, very little prospects of getting back what they put into the system, and if they get back anything, they’re getting back pennies on the dollar.”
In the ad, Greenberg’s declaration that Social Security is a failure is immediately followed by the line “You gotta rely on your own system of retirement,” bolstering the ad’s impression that Greenberg openly supports eliminating guaranteed Social Security benefits.
But that statement was made two months after Greenberg’s “Social Security is a failure” statement, and is presented wholly out of context. Here’s Greenberg’s full comment, from a videotaped interview in April 2010 with a group called I-Caucus:
“One of the things that I would suggest with regard to Social Security is that people can opt out of what I call the public system, for a discounted payoff, as they’re called in real estate. You have a certain amount in your account — you get an indication of it every year — and based upon your age, and based upon the amount in that account, you can take a payment from the government, write a check, and then that money would go into an IRA or a Keogh or other private system of retirement. I’d like to think that that would gain some steam if I were in Congress. In that case, you’re off the public dole. You gotta rely upon your own system of retirement, your self-retirement system and not the Social Security system of retirement.”
So what Greenberg proposed was an opt-out plan in which workers would have a choice between taking Social Security benefits or receiving a lump-sum payment to invest on their own. And those who went with the lump-sum option would then “rely upon your own system of retirement, your self-retirement system and not the Social Security system of retirement.”
That is a far cry from the message weaved together in this ad, in which it appears Greenberg is belittling government old-age benefits and telling all seniors they need to rely on their own retirement system.
The misleading nature of the ad is made worse by the on-screen graphics added to the televisions being watched by the actors in the ad. As Greenberg speaks, TV-news-style word bars appear at the bottom of the screens, as though the video were news footage. Most of the graphics are direct quotes, so under a banner reading “MARK GREENBERG,” we see “SOCIAL SECURITY IS A FAILURE” or “RELY ON YOUR OWN SYSTEM OF RETIREMENT.” And under those quotes are small citations identifying the date and place where Greenberg uttered those words.
But the very first graphic is not in quotes and contains no citation. It reads: END SOCIAL SECURITY’S GUARANTEE — again, giving the impression that that was some independent party’s objective summary of his comments. But in the campaign’s background material for the ad, consisting of the Greenberg speeches from 2010 and an archived copy of his campaign website, Greenberg never proposes the elimination of Social Security’s guaranteed benefits.
For the last element of the ad, the campaign highlights in huge letters Greenberg’s words “off the public dole.” But the ad creators have added a word of their own, outside the quotation marks, so that the graphic reads: GET “OFF THE PUBLIC DOLE,” which is neither what Greenberg said nor implied.
The Esty campaign notes that the influential group AARP opposes even a partial privatization of Social Security funds, saying any diversion of funds would jeopardize Social Security’s stability and potentially leave too little money to pay guaranteed benefits. But there is a difference between saying Greenberg wants to enact policies that some believe could lead to the end of guaranteed Social Security benefits, and saying Greenberg wants to end guaranteed Social Security benefits.
Greenberg’s opt-out proposal is fair game for critics who think it’s an unwise idea and want to poke holes in it. But that’s not what is presented in this ad. Instead, all of Greenberg’s words have been presented in dramatically misleading fashion, in support of an overall claim — that Greenberg wants to “end Social Security’s guarantee” — that is unsubstantiated by the facts.
Accordingly, we rate this ad False.