A case of mistaken distortion

A GOP powerhouse is forced to disavow a radio ad, aimed at African-Americans, that compares Social Security to "reverse reparations."

Published September 13, 2002 10:29PM (EDT)

For several years now, conservatives have targeted African-Americans as potential supporters of private investment accounts in Social Security, often making the misleading claim that the system discriminates against them. A recent ad along these lines, calling Social Security "reverse reparations," was mistakenly aired under the name of GOPAC, the high-powered Republican political action committee, putting one of the party's most influential groups behind a message it says was never intended to run.

(MP3 download: To listen to the ad, click here.)

The radio ad, which ran several times over the past few weeks on a Kansas City radio station with primarily black listeners, not only distorts how Social Security benefits work and the program's impact on African-Americans, but also incorrectly says it was paid for by GOPAC, chaired by former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating.

The ad was produced by Access Communications, a media agency that creates and airs political ads for conservative groups. GOPAC selected Access to produce and run ads targeting African-Americans, and the agency presented GOPAC with dozens to choose from. GOPAC selected seven ads, none of which dealt with Social Security. In what both organizations are calling a snafu, Access mistakenly believed GOPAC had selected the "reparations" ad and aired it under GOPAC's name.

"We totally disavow this ad," GOPAC communications director Mike Tuffin stated. "When we discovered it had run, we called them and had them pull it."

Access' mistake sheds light on how ads from interest groups come into being. This particular ad was most likely intended to hurt the local reelection campaigns of Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., and Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan. Access offered GOPAC a stock of dozens of issue-specific ads it could run, the same library it offers to its other interest-group clients. Such ads have become much more common in recent years as campaign finance reforms have limited the amount of money that candidates themselves can spend on campaigns; interest groups have stepped in, running ads intended to help certain candidates without mentioning them by name.

The ad in question uses racially charged language to link the controversy over whether blacks should receive reparations for the harm of slavery to a distorted claim that blacks receive substantially lower Social Security benefits than whites do. Hence, "reverse reparations." "Under Social Security today, blacks receive $21,000 less in retirement benefits than whites of similar income and marital status," the ad declares. "One-third of brothers die before retirement and receive nothing."

As the liberal group Campaign for America's Future has accurately pointed out, both these claims are misleading. The $21,000 figure, drawn directly from the Interim Report of the President's Commission to Save Social Security, compares blacks and whites who have identical incomes, noting that Africano?=Americans receive less in benefits because their lifespan is seven years shorter.

But this is not a fair basis for concluding that Social Security subsidizes whites at the expense of blacks. The ad ignores the fact that in addition to having a shorter life expectancy, the typical African-American earns a lower income than an average white person -- which a fair comparison would take into account. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, when average income and life expectancy are taken into account, "the average rate of return on Social Security is modestly higher for African-Americans than for whites."

The statement that "one-third of brothers die before retirement and receive nothing" is even more misleading, because it ignores survivor benefits. While no dead person can receive benefits (for an obvious reason), surviving family members are guaranteed benefits.

Although GOPAC now rejects the Social Security ad, Access still stands proudly behind it. "This ad is perfectly good," said John Uhlmann, the agency's chairman. "Democrats want to distract people from the issue raised in the ad, that the current system discriminates against blacks and black families."

Access' president is Richard Nadler, a prominent conservative activist who has often advocated Republican outreach to minority audiences. In 2000, he came under fire for a controversial ad that ran in Kansas City advocating education savings accounts. The ad, sponsored by Nadler's Republican Ideas Political Action Committee, shows a group of children -- one of whom has a gun -- and dramatizes the decision of a fictitious mother who pulls her son from a public school.

"We didn't want him where drugs and violence were fashionable," the actress said in the ad. "That was a bit more diversity than he could handle."

The ad drew national attention and was disavowed by President Bush, Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson, former representative Jim Talent (then running for governor) and then-senator John Ashcroft, among others. Nadler denied that "diversity" was a reference to race, saying it referred to "drugs and violence."

While the misleading ad about "reverse reparations" had a short lifespan this time, Uhlmann says voters may be able to look forward to its reappearance soon. "We fully expect some other client will want to run it," he said.

By Ben Fritz

Ben Fritz is co-editor of Spinsanity.


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Republican Party Social Security