Tomato, “Toe-mahto,” TIAA-CREF

Readers may never see syndicated columnist Berko's many corrections

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.)

In the December correction, Berko explained that he had gotten the bad information from two former employees, “one of whom I suspect may not be a gruntled employee.”

But he also added:

But certainly some [TIAA-CREF] employees do [make contributions], though not in the name of TIAA-CREF.

In a June column headlined “Teachers Fund Far from Head of the Class,” Berko repeated one of his November errors, calling TIAA-CREF a “for-profit” company, and made a new one:

…only five of CREF’s mutual funds have double-digit returns, which occurred in an exploding market between 2002 and 2006.

Actually, the number was twelve.

In July, Berko, for the third time, erroneously called TIAA-CREF “for-profit” and said it sells “high-commission, high-cost” products.

He also repeated, wrongly, that the firm had just five mutual funds with double-digit investment returns over the last five years.

By this point, TIAA-CREF had repeatedly pointed out the errors, and posted refutations on its Web site.

On August 13, Berko attempted to make amends with a column headlined “Mea Culpa: Getting It Right About TIAA-CREF.” He quoted TIAA-CREF defending its investment returns with numbers that indicate 63 percent of its funds and annuities outperformed the Morningstar median returns over three- and five-year periods.

He also let readers know that it was in fact twelve TIAA-CREF mutual funds that produced double-digit returns, not five.

Still, Berko dismissed the importance of an error he made three times, that of the difference between a company that distributes profits to shareholders and one that gives them back to clients:

OK, I guess that’s why some folks say “tomato” while others say “toe-mahto!

Actually, the distinction is crucial. But regardless, most of the papers that ran the original erroneous columns didn’t run the subsequent columns that corrected the errors, TIAA-CREF complains. Creators says papers choose which columns they run.

In an e-mail, Berko says he’s hard on TIAA-CREF because readers constantly complain to him about it. “During the past few years I have received numerous complaints from readers expressing exasperation, frustration and anger about how difficult it is for them to move their money from (TIAA-CREF) to another fiduciary.” He also says he’s heard from ex-salespeople at the company who say their advisers were told to make it as difficult as possible for investors to leave.

He also repeated the allegation that TIAA makes campaign contributions:

I do not personally have evidence of (TIAA-CREF) contributions to various school boards, etc. But I do have private anecdotal evidence from several ex-employees whom I have no reason to doubt. Ryan….we both know that a bundle of fifties (under the hat) is an appreciated gesture. This practice and the world’s oldest profession walk hand in hand down the corridors of Corporate America and in Congress. And both of us know there are some very imaginative ways to pass the hat.

Campaign contributions are public record and can be examined at any secretary of state’s office or local election board, so reliance on “private anecdotal evidence” as proof that they were made is, at best, bizarre.

We also have a bone to pick with Creators’ disclosure on Berko. On its Web site, it says Berko is a financial adviser “at a regional brokerage firm in Boca Raton, Fla.” Berko says he hasn’t worked as an adviser for two years and says Creators is updating his bio. (As of publication time, it still hadn’t been updated.)

But disclosure for a financial-advice column should be more than up to date. It should be complete. Commission-based advisers would naturally be less likely to recommend no-fee products, such as those sold by TIAA-CREF. The Creators disclosure says nothing about Berko’s financial interests.

Berko declines to disclose how he was paid and says it’s not relevant.

if by your question you are implying that my columns about T/C are influenced by the competitive nature of a difference in commission schedules than I suggest this implication could be insulting and that your conclusions are far off base and miles from the ball park.

We disagree. But what really ought to concern readers is Berko’s looseness with the facts and the likelihood that, because of how syndication works, when he screws up they won’t know about it.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.