Myself, I think it would have been useful information to compare the size of the program to that of the general fund, but I can’t fault Bloomberg for not including information that apparently wasn’t provided. DeFillippo said he thought he had told Evans, because it was part of his basic talking points. Evans said he didn’t, and Neumann said that the e-mail to Hugh Son including that information was not forwarded to him or Evans until after I raised the question.

The tone

Now let me say a little something about tone.

Quoting Cindy Lohman, whose 24-year-old son was killed by a bomb in Afghanistan, was certainly fair enough:

”It saddens me as an American that a company would stoop so low as to make a profit on the death of a soldier. Is there anything lower than that?”

From the same story, a quote from Jeffrey Stempel, an insurance law professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas:

“‘It’s turning death claims into a profit center.”

And from the same story:

It also quotes Stephen Wurtz, deputy assistant director for insurance at the VA, who has overseen the program for 25 years:

”Uncle Sam is ripping off their own,” Wurtz says. “My wife would get the money, and they would blood-suck some of it out of her.”

And then there’s the kicker:

”It’s outrageous that somebody’s profiting off other people’s grief,“ says Mark Umbrell of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. His 26-year-old son, Colby, an Army Airborne Ranger who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was killed in Iraq in May 2007. Umbrell was among those who got a “checkbook” account.

“I think we’re being taken,” he says.

Now here’s the thing: It’s not hard to make insurance companies look bad. They deal, after all, in unpleasant realities: death and catastrophe. And it’s true that insurers make money by investing the premiums they hold while hoping never to have to pay. A former colleague of mine often had to explain to editors why a devastating hurricane was less damaging to an insurance company’s earnings than a downturn in the markets.

But, in fact, insurance, when it is working right, is collective risk-sharing. The industry protects its customers from catastrophic losses if those horrors occur. And the industry’s view of the retained asset accounts is that they provide extra protection—investing large lump sums while survivors have some time to think, guarding against importuning relatives and opportunistic sales pitches.

If I had been the editor of the series, I think I would have argued for fewer colorful quotes about the blood-suckers. I would have also made room in any story that raised the issue of no FDIC coverage for the industry’s position that the state guaranty funds protect the accounts, even if followed by something to the tune of: But lawmakers have questioned the adequacy of that protection.

With those caveats, Bloomberg performed a valuable service by shining a light on a system that was poorly understood by both beneficiaries and regulators and, in doing so, succeeded in bringing about important changes.

Martha M. Hamilton , CJR's Audit Arbiter, explores complaints about fairness, accuracy, and other issues arising from business-news stories. Send possible story ideas her way at the link on her name. A former reporter, editor, and columnist at The Washington Post, she is a writer and editor for