Malcolm Berko is a money man for Middle America.
Writing on an old IBM Selectric typewriter, Berko cranks out a syndicated financial-advice column called “Taking Stock” that runs mostly in small papers across the country, answering letters from perplexed readers in a loosey-goosey style:
Well, pass the hoecake, hominy stew and sassafras tea; my two dogs, Catfish and Cornbread, can do better than 5.9 percent wearing blindfolds and earplugs.
In e-mails, he ends with the salutation: “Dangle EaZy.”
But folksy doesn’t always mean nice. Since November, Berko has been blasting away at TIAA-CREF, saying the New York-based financial-services giant underperforms, provides poor service, and has an unfair lock on its clientele of teachers, professors, doctors, and researchers through ties to their unions. He’s called TIAA’s back office “perverted,” its salespeople “wily,” and its fund-performance smelly, “like swamp mud.” About the nicest thing he’s said about the company is that its advice is “average.”
That would be fine&mdash a columnist is, of course, allowed (indeed, encouraged) to voice strong opinions, and TIAA-CREF shouldn’t be exempt from scrutiny. The trouble is, each of Berko’s broadsides has contained significant factual errors that torpedo his credibility and, worse, even when corrected, never reach many readers because papers in his syndicate fail to publish them.
In July, TIAA-CREF wrote The Audit complaining that it wasn’t being fairly treated by Berko and his syndicator, first Copley News Service, then Los Angeles-based Creators Syndicate, which acquired Copley.
Since then, Berko ran a column that corrected some of the errors.
Even so, TIAA’s run-ins with Berko and his syndicators raise basic issues of fairness and editing standards. Even if Berko’s errors of checkable facts couldn’t be caught beforehand, he has repeated errors—even after being informed of the error by TIAA-CREF.
Making matters worse, Creators does nothing to ensure that corrections of significant errors of fact appear in the papers that publish the mistake.
The flap also offers a window on the little-noticed syndication business, a model that, like newspapers is changing fast, but unlike newspapers, doesn’t employ their own fulltime journalists, but instead relies on writers from various backgrounds. Berko, for instance, is a former financial analyst who, in theory at least, competed against TIAA-CREF salespeople. Making matters worse, Creators’ disclosure about its financial-advice columnist is out of date and otherwise inadequate.
In an e-mail exchange with The Audit, Berko was in turns playful and pugnacious. While he acknowledges some mistakes, he says they weren’t really all that wrong. “Some folks say Caribbean and others might say Car-rib-bean,” he says about one error.
Jessica Burtch, managing editor of Creators, says “Mr. Berko has demonstrated his willingness to clarify discrepancies when appropriate. He does, however, stand by his opinion, which is what his column offers readers. Mr. Berko has a long, sound and solid record as a columnist.”
Anthony Zurcher, a Creators editor, says the syndicate has no way of knowing how many papers run a correction it issues. “We send it out over the wire or via e-mail the same way we send it normally and in the same way it’s in the paper’s hands to print the column,” he says.
The flap began last November when, in a column headlined “Teachers have a lot to learn about investing,” Berko wrote that TIAA-CREF salespeople push high-commission investments and that the organization doesn’t distribute profits to its clients.
The latter charge is implied here with our emphasis:
It’s time to take the politics out of the pension plan business and give performance and profits to the participants.
In fact, both assertions are wrong. TIAA-CREF’s profits go back to its clients through dividends and investment gains, says Abby Cohen, a spokeswoman. Its employees are salaried with bonuses based on customer service.
Berko also ran with a rumor in the same column:
Some cynics suggest that the organization makes sizable annual donations to the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of University Professors, who approve and support your 403(b) plans. Those contributions keep the doors closed to better competitors.
The column offered no evidence to support the unnamed cynics’ suggestion.
In December, Berko backtracked. In a column headlined, “Some Lessons on Teachers’ Retirement Fund,” he published a letter from a reader who wrote that Berko was “very wrong” about the commission issue. Berko then quoted Brian Browdie, TIAA’s vice president of corporate communications, who said that TIAA makes no contributions to unions.
Browdie tells us that it took some wrangling to get Creators’ predecessor, Copley, to even issue the correction, and when it did, only five of fifteen papers that originally published the column also published the correction. (Creators declined to provide its own list of papers that published either the column or the correction, but says “Taking Stock” runs in more than fifty papers.)