When John Paul II died last year, the College of Cardinals gathered in Rome, in solemn conclave, sequestered in the Sistine Chapel. There, shielded from the world, the princes of the church went about God's work and selected a new pontiff. The rest of us, the press included, waited outside, in St. Peter's Square and elsewhere, for the puff of white smoke that would signal their work was done.
To descend from the sublime to the ridiculous, it strikes me lately that covering the American insurance business may not be so different from covering the Vatican. Three times in the past two years (at last count), the industry's elders, inexplicably and foolishly, saw fit to operate under a veil of secrecy, to hide behind closed doors, and to shut out the press and their own colleagues.
This was done for reasons far from sacred, historic or even understandable. In each instance, we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with those we're supposed to inform, our collective noses pressed to the proverbial glass.
First came the Risk and Insurance Management Society, the so-called voice of the nation's commercial insurance consumers. RIMS, in its wisdom, closed a session at its 2005 annual meeting on broker compensation, a sizzling issue then as now and one that presumably victimizes RIMS most of all.
This happened, mind you, at the peak of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's assault on the Big Three for their alleged double-dealing ways. This silly action provoked an angry and unnecessary exchange during the meeting between the RIMS leadership and the press, as well as a couple of defiant editorials and an unprecedented joint letter of protest from three of the industry's major trade publications.
This spring, RIMS struck again, testing to the max our senses of outrage and humor, when it barred us from a much-ballyhooed conference in New York among risk managers, brokers, regulators and insurance companies on the very "quality" issues the Spitzer probe brought to light. Print our press release, RIMS said in effect, but don't dare attend. If you didn't know better, they almost sounded bold.
It was with a somewhat profound sense of déjàvu then that I entered a Washington press room at this year's annual convention of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. There I learned that the Big I's "issues briefing," the heart and soul of its legislative conference, was out of bounds to the very press it had invited. Official explanation: "It's always been that way." And as long as the Capitol Hill office wants it that way, apparently it always will be that way. In fact, I know from a former insider that the matter has been a bone of contention for many years.
Too bad the Big I comes down on the wrong side of this. Too bad it shows itself to be as dumb as the downright laughable RIMS. Too bad, at a time when disclosure and transparency are of utmost concern, it chooses to slam the doors shut, to deny all but the few in the room the benefit of debate, and to issue sanitized ex post facto reports to the world outside its doors.
Big Message to the Big I: Open the chapel doors. Stop blowing white smoke. Fumigate the room and ventilate the issues.
Devil take the hindmost. Let the presses roll!
THOMAS J. SLATTERY, a veteran editor and writer on industry affairs for more than
40 years, is also the managing director of Slattery-Esterkamp Communications, Baldwin, N.Y.
July 1, 2006
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