Joseph Belth is one of the best business journalists in America. He served as the conscience of an industry for 40 years and influenced countless careers, including mine.
Yet Belth was never eligible for a Pulitzer Prize, which I believe he deserves. Unless you work in the insurance industry or write about insurance or personal finance for a living, you probably have never heard of him. Many journalists do not even recognize him as a member of their tribe.
Belth is a professor emeritus of insurance at Indiana University. Since 1973, he has published a monthly newsletter called The Insurance Forum that was far more interesting and controversial than its name suggests. Last week Belth wrote to subscribers to announce that December’s issue of The Insurance Forum will be the last. At 84, Belth plans to finish writing a book about his experiences with the newsletter and otherwise retire from journalism.
He leaves a body of work that is admired by many and, it is safe to say, detested by many more. People who sell insurance sometimes seem to think they have a constitutional right to be the only source of information available to prospective customers, and they tend to be harsh in their attacks on those who don’t jump aboard their latest marketing bandwagon.
My colleagues and I experience this reaction every time we write about the shortcomings of long-term care insurance. For Belth, the attacks were just part of the workday. He and his publication were called all sorts of names, the most polite of which was probably “The Insurance Bore-‘em.” Yet his work was anything but boring.
In 1981 Belth challenged the sales tactics of the A.L. Williams organization, which recruited a small army of part-time agents to advise consumers to “buy term and invest the difference,” rather than hold onto whole-life policies that carried significantly higher premiums. In many situations, buying term insurance is indeed the best way to get affordable protection for a family. But replacing existing policies on which commissions have already been paid with new policies on which large commissions are due is not, generally speaking, a good idea. A.L. Williams won an order from North Carolina insurance regulators banning that issue of the newsletter from circulation in the state; Belth had the blatantly unconstitutional order reversed by a federal court.
Over a four-year period, he wrote repeatedly about the questionable financial underpinnings of Executive Life, a once highly rated company that collapsed in 1991. He wrote articles that were mild in tone but scathing in content about the many ways insurers discovered to separate customers from their assets, including failing to disclose the true costs of paying premiums in installments, delaying the payment of death benefits without paying interest, and converting customer-owned mutual companies into stock companies without fairly compensating policyholders for equity that was assigned elsewhere. In recent years, he has vigorously criticized deceptive practices surrounding the origination and marketing of large new policies funded, and mostly controlled, by speculators.
Belth constantly fought for the free flow of information. He filed more freedom of information requests each year than most reporters file in a career. He exposed efforts by insurance companies and often-compliant regulators to suppress data on company financial condition, executive pay and other enforcement matters.
His newsletters were concisely written, meticulously edited and thoroughly sourced. Belth did not do hatchet jobs. He always invited subjects to respond to his observations, and he often quoted extensively from court documents and other raw materials.
In 1991 Belth received a George Polk Award, one of journalism’s highest, in a “special publications” category. “Intent on reform and informing those in decision-making positions, Mr. Belth carries on despite the continuing hostility of many in the industry,” the awards panel said in a statement.
A few years ago, I looked into nominating Belth for a Pulitzer but ran into a roadblock: Pulitzer eligibility is limited to “material coming from a United States newspaper or news site that publishes at least weekly and adheres to the highest journalistic principles.” The weekly publication requirement, whatever its purpose, seemed to rule out Belth’s monthly self-published newsletter.
Maybe Belth’s publication schedule mattered to the Pulitzer pooh-bahs, but it did not matter to me. I read his newsletter closely to keep up with trends and issues in the industry, and I cited it on several occasions here in my blog. My readers benefited from Belth’s reporting on delays in locating life insurance beneficiaries, the actual cost of paying premiums in installments and the misleading use of instruments known as “surplus notes” to disguise insurers’ true levels of debt.
In his November issue discussing the newsletter’s history, Belth credits Ralph Nader with inspiring The Insurance Forum’s creation. Belth met Nader at a 1966 conference and was surprised to learn that Nader had read Belth’s little-known book about retail pricing for life insurance. “During that conversation, Nader made a suggestion that altered the course of my career,” Belth recalled. “He said he had noted I did not identify companies. He said books, articles and reports that do not name names generally are not read and do little but gather dust. He said I should name names if I wanted to accomplish anything significant for the benefit of the public. I then began to do so, with predictable results.”
Trade journals that depended on insurance company advertisers and subscribers did not want to publish Belth’s finger-pointing articles. Academic journals were unafraid, but hardly anyone in the industry read academic journals. So Belth launched his own newsletter. He never accepted advertising and, most of the time, he never made any money from it, according to his farewell account.
But he set a high standard for insurance industry conduct and he provided a roadmap for objective financial advisers and journalists to guide consumers toward sensible choices.
I am off on a business trip to Nova Scotia. When I get back, I will drop Joe Belth a line to let him know how deeply I appreciate his work and how much he will be missed.
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