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My conversation with Frontline

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I rediscovered an important lesson last year just before my speaking engagement at the annual fi360 Conference. After being greeted by scores of satisfied readers, I was surprised to learn very few of them intended to attend my presentation. As the conversation continued, I casually let it be known that, not only do I report on fiduciary matters, I actually work in the field. Indeed, I’ve had my own firm for 15 years and for 15 years before that I worked for another major firm. With that, my readers looked at me in shock, as if I’d crossed some line.

“You actually work in this business,” said one such reader. I nodded reluctantly, not knowing what to expect. “Then,” she continued, “you not only know how to write, but you really know what you’re writing about! Maybe I will attend your presentation after all.”

There, in a nutshell, lies the common problem. People like good writing, but they don’t trust the media. Prior to admitting I owned my own investment advisor, ran my own proprietary mutual funds, and have been offering 401(k) fiduciary consulting services for more than a decade, people just assumed I was a member of the media. That was fine with me. I was trying my best to be viewed that way. I didn’t want people to think I was just another industry hack trying to promote his own wares.

But this reader’s comment made me remember a science writing seminar I once took while studying physics and astronomy in ivy-covered New Haven. The class showed how the factual integrity of a technical story deteriorates the farther the author of an article is removed from practicing the subject. Even Scientific American and New York Times articles contain many more factual errors than the original paper written by the scientists themselves.

With this in mind, I spoke to Martin Smith, the producer of the much debated PBS Frontline segment on “The Retirement Gamble” (read the special four-part interview series for free here: “Exclusive Interview: Frontline Producer Explains Controversial 401k Documentary – Part I: The Good,”, April 30, 2013). Let me tell you this immediately and upfront: While many commenters assume Smith is just another arrogant liberal with an agenda, I can assure you he is not arrogant. He also gave no indication he was out to promote a liberal agenda. In fact, he was quite specific on what he hoped his show would do. He wanted people to stop believing their 401(k) plan was free and he wanted to shock them with the amount of fees they’re paying.

Smith himself has clearly been a victim of using a high-priced bundled nonfiduciary advisor for his small company’s 401(k) plan. Not only that, but he’s been a victim of bad advice (his financial advisor told him to start the 401(k) plan so he could then take a loan out to pay for his two children’s college education – a choice he now regrets) as well as a victim of bad luck (he went through a divorce and – Holy Solomon! – you know what that means when it comes to retirement assets).

It was this honesty and openness that most impressed me. Sure he could have been pulling a fast one over me. This was a telephone interview, so I had no chance to read the body language, but I’ve challenged many interviewees and I’ve come to be able to read between the lines enough to judge if they’re becoming defensive. Smith never came across as defensive. And while he was confident, he wasn’t cocky and he was at times even apologetic.

When I confronted him on some of the show’s mistakes – whether errors or omissions – he was quite humble, saying he was only a “general reporter” and not as familiar with all the nuances of the industry as someone like I was. It wasn’t as though he totally caved, and with the support of his associate producer, on several occasions said his show did address things others have said it did not. I believe he believes he honestly showed these things. I also believe he now thinks he could have done a better job.

For example, he told me BrightScope told him the same thing as Robert Hiltonsmith (author of last year’s widely discredited DEMOS paper). Smith did what any editor does when confronted with two seemingly identical interview answers – he cut one. It’s likely he went with Hiltonsmith because BrightScope was less “incendiary” (to use BrightScope’s own word). Smith said his show did mention the DEMOS paper was attacked by the industry. What he didn’t realize was that it was also attacked by objective sources (like EBRI, whose interview Smith also relegated to the trash bin). When I told him he could have still come to his same conclusions using EBRI and BrightScope, he answered by again alluding to the “general reporter” comment, but also by saying he needed to insure he could attract the general audience.

Which gets us back to that science writing seminar I once took. About 10 years after I took that class, the Journal of Communications published an article by Eleanor Singer who concluded, “An analysis of news stories that draw on published research shows that, in the process of making science lively and acceptable, most media reports introduce some errors of omission, emphasis, or fact.” This, more than any form of malevolence, explains the shortcomings of “The Retirement Gamble.”

I think the show’s producer understands this risk and accepts it as an occupational hazard. But at least he’s willing to avoid this mistake if possible. When I asked Smith what he would do differently if he made a follow-up documentary, he said, “the first thing I would do would be to call you.”

Who knows? Maybe I’ll be among the elite who make it to the cutting room floor.