Treating homeowner insurance as a right rather than a business contract, ABC’s “Good Morning America” slammed insurance underwriter State Farm for its decision to stop selling new policies to homeowners in Mississippi.
Correspondent Chris Cuomo stacked the deck against State Farm, playing up liberal talking points about the insurance industry’s profits, while dismissing the company’s defense of its business decision.
Introducing the story on the February 15 program, anchor Diane Sawyer presented viewers with two unsavory characterizations of State Farm.
“It is a move that some are calling heartless and others are calling plain greedy,” the ABC anchor teased.
Cuomo’s story was packed with complaints against the company but allowed just one line of defense from a State Farm official. The ABC reporter opened his story with a sound bite from Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood (D); turned to a couple suing State Farm in the Magnolia State; tossed in a complaint from Consumer Federation of America’s Bob Hunter; and turned a second time to Hood to charge State Farm with avarice.
“Mississippi's attorney general suggests the real problem isn't the worst hurricane season ever. He says it's State Farm's greed,” Cuomo noted.
“In the most catastrophic year in history, they increased their profits by $3.9 billion,” Hood complained to Cuomo about State Farm’s 2005 profits.
Cuomo took the attorney general for his word, but Hood’s often-cited talking point is misleading, as the Business & Media Institute (BMI) previously reported before the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 23, 2006.
“Two of the last 28 years we’ve actually made money,” Julie Rochman, a senior vice president of the American Insurance Association (AIA), told BMI at that time.
What’s more, in 2005 “in Mississippi and Louisiana, the insurance industry paid out the equivalent of about 20 years’ worth of profits for those states,” Rochman, who herself once suffered property damaged from a hurricane, told BMI.
The ABC reporter allowed State Farm just one line of defense, showing company Vice President Mike Fernandez lamenting the shaky business climate Hood’s lawsuit created for the company in Mississippi.
Cuomo quickly shot Fernandez down with a response from Mississippi’s attorney general.
“They created the problem. If they'd have paid what they owed in the first place, there would never have been a lawsuit filed,” Hood insisted.
But in fact, State Farm is being pushed by Mississippi’s attorney general into paying what it doesn’t owe policy holders, Darren McKinney of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) told BMI in an interview.
“He [Attorney General Hood] brought a major lawsuit against insurers in the state, essentially coercing them to live by a contract they never entered into,” said McKinney, who called State Farm’s decision “common sense self-preservation.”
“If you want businesses to thrive and consider your state a hospitable place to locate,” McKinney argued, “state policy makers need to be cognizant of the business environment” they create through their actions, such as Hood’s lawsuit against State Farm, an action which the insurance industry’s trade group called “groundless.”
“The relationship between an insurer and its policyholder is determined by the policy language in each insurance contract. It is not appropriate to force any insurer to pay claims for losses beyond the scope of their contract, as the attorney general's lawsuit seeks to do,” argued InsuranceJournal.com in a Sept. 16, 2005, article.
Not only did ABC suggest State Farm was greedy; Cuomo also suggested the company was vindictive as he turned to Bob Hunter of the liberal Consumer Federation of America to complain about the company’s decision to suspend homeowner policy sales.
“State Farm is basically saying if you make us pay what we owe, we're going, we're going to take it out on your citizens,” Hunter griped.
Rather than presenting the insurance industry as one side with valid arguments in a legal proceeding, ABC’s reporters made clear they intended to put the industry on the defensive.
“We have a call to arms, this morning. The four of us are all going to be taking on the issue of the insurance industry, taking your case to them and getting answers for you,” Sawyer promised her audience as she teased an upcoming series, “Taking It On,” to air on “Good Morning America” the week of February 18.