A Pioneering Insurance Journalist Calls It Quits

Joseph Belth is a top-notch business journalist in America. For 40 years, he was the conscience of an entire industry and influenced many careers, including mine.

Belth, however, was not eligible for the Pulitzer Prize. This is a shame. You probably haven’t heard of Belth unless you are in the insurance business or write about personal finance or insurance. Many journalists don’t even recognize him as part of their tribe.

Belth is an Indiana University professor emeritus in insurance. He has been publishing a monthly newsletter, The Insurance Forum, since 1973. It is far more controversial and interesting than its name implies. Belth emailed subscribers in October to inform them that the December issue of The Insurance Forum would be his last. Belth, 84, plans to write a book about his experience with The Insurance Forum and then retire from journalism.

His work is respected by many, but detested by many others. Insurance salespeople sometimes believe they have the right to provide all information to potential customers. They are often harsh about those who don’t follow their marketing fads.

This reaction is something that my colleagues and I feel every time we discuss the problems with long-term care insurance. Belth said that the attacks were part of his workday. His publication and Belth were called many names, but the most polite was “The Insurance Bore-’em”. His work was far from boring.

1981 Belth challenged A.L.’s sales tactics. The Williams organization recruited a small group of part-time agents to advise customers to “buy term, invest the difference” rather than to hold on to whole-life policies with significantly higher premiums. In many cases, purchasing term insurance is the best way to provide affordable protection for your family. It is generally not a good idea to replace existing policies with large commissions that have been paid with policies with larger commissions. A.L. A.L.

He wrote numerous articles over a period of four years about the financial underpinnings at Executive Life, once highly rated, that fell apart in 1991. His articles were light in tone, but harsh in content. They discussed the various ways that insurers tried to seize customers from their assets. This included failing to disclose the true cost of paying premiums in installments and delaying death benefits payments without paying interest. Converting customer-owned mutual corporations into stock companies without compensating policyholders for equity they had received elsewhere was another way he wrote. He has criticized the deceptive marketing practices of large, new policies that were financed and controlled mainly by speculators in recent years.

Belth fought tirelessly for free information flow. Each year, he filed more freedom-of-information requests than any other reporter. He exposed the efforts of insurance companies and regulators to suppress information on financial conditions, executive pay, and other enforcement issues.

His newsletters were well-written, edited meticulously and thoroughly sourced. Belth didn’t do hatchet job. He invited his subjects to respond to him and often quoted heavily from court documents or other raw materials.

1991 was the year Belth won the George Polk Award, one among journalism’s most prestigious in the “special publications” category. The awards panel stated in a statement that Mr. Belth was “intent on reforming and informing those who are in decision-making positions,” (1)

A few years back, I tried to nominate Belth for a Pulitzer. But, there was a problem: Pulitzer eligibility is restricted to material that comes from a United States newspaper. No matter what its purpose, the weekly publication requirement seemed to exclude Belth’s monthly newsletter.

Perhaps Belth’s publication calendar was important to the Pulitzer poohbahs, but it didn’t matter to me. To keep up to date with industry trends, I closely read his newsletter and cited it several times. Belth’s reporting about delays in finding life insurance beneficiaries, actual costs of paying premiums monthly and misleading use of “surplus notes”, instruments that mask the true debt levels of insurers has been a benefit to me and my readers.

Belth discusses the history of The Insurance Forum in his November issue. Belth met Nader during a 1966 conference. He was shocked to discover that Nader had also read Belth’s book on retail pricing for life insurance. Belth recalls that Nader made a suggestion during that conversation that changed the course of his career. He said that he noticed I didn’t identify companies. He stated that books, articles, and reports that don’t name names are less likely to be read and do little other than gather dust. If I want to do anything for the benefit the public, he said that I should identify names. With predictable results, I began to do this. (2)

Trade journals, which depended on the advertising of insurance companies, did not want to publish Belth’s finger-pointing articles. Although academic journals were not afraid to publish Belth’s articles, few people in the industry read academic journals. Belth started his newsletter. According to his farewell account, he did not accept advertising and, for most of the time, he didn’t make any money.

He set high standards for the insurance industry and provided a guideline for journalists and financial advisors to help consumers make sensible decisions.

I’m on a business trip in Nova Scotia. I will write Joe Belth to say how much I appreciate his work.