Taking Ben Stein’s Column

August 17, 2009

Ben Stein is an unusual figure on the contemporary media scene. He has academic legitimacy, since he has degrees from Columbia and Yale and his dad was the late Herb Stein, a top government economist under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He’s political, having been a speechwriter for Nixon and Ford, and his economic commentary appears widely—Barron’s, The Wall Street Journal, CBS Sunday Morning, Fox News.

He’s also an accomplished showman. Ever since his debut as a gnomish classroom teacher in the 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” he has refined a screen persona that’s both irritating and endearing, and parlayed his trademark drone into a recognizable shtick for commercials and film cameos. He hosted a long-running Comedy Central game show, “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” and co-wrote and narrated a movie last year tweaking the intellectual establishment for scoffing at intelligent design, the faith-based doctrine that scoffs at Darwin.

And for four years, he wrote a column for the Sunday business section of the New York Times.

Not any more. Earlier this month, the Times fired him, and it’s that firing I want to explore.

The Times says Stein was sacked because he did a TV ad for an outfit called FreeScore.com, which peddles access to credit reports. That, the Times says, violated the paper’s ethics policy on journalists doing PR work and was a conflict of interest for Stein. So out he went.

Stein says he was fired because he was slapping the Obama presidency around, but I’m skeptical that after years of writing for them the Times would suddenly find his quirky conservatism intolerable.

I’m more concerned about the allegation of conflict of interest, and about this affair as an instance where the language of ethics was used to justify disciplinary action that wasn’t properly ethics-based at all.

Was there a genuine conflict of interest here?

The importance of this question goes beyond Ben Stein. With the explosion of Internet postings from part-time journalists who live off diverse sources of income, conflict of interest is emerging as the signature ethical issue of the new media age. It’s a concept that should be used carefully.

Conflict of interest isn’t some catchall for extracurricular behavior that management dislikes. It describes a particular situation in which a journalist has some undisclosed outside loyalty, commitment, affiliation or obligation that might plausibly influence his judgment and tilt his work to satisfy this off-stage constituency. If a commentator urges readers to buy things he secretly profits from, that’s a conflict.

Stein’s defense is that he has never written about credit ratings or about this company, therefore no conflict existed. One of his critics, the Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, offers an equally succinct counterpoint: “Stein provides financial advice in his column, and he provides financial advice in the ad.”

I’m not convinced. I pulled down four of Stein’s recent Times columns and was hard-pressed to find any whiff of financial wisdom. He seems to have styled them as ruminations on economics and public purpose. One was on the glories of salesmanship, another a look back at America’s “decline” seen from 2089. I thought they were windy and self-indulgent. But they offered me no advice, and Stein never suggested I check my credit score.

Conflict of interest could take another form, as the Times ban on outside PR work suggests. After all, somebody might trade on his status as a Times columnist for lucrative outside work (somebody like Thomas Friedman, the Times uber-columnist, who had to return a $75,000 speaking fee earlier this year and was not fired.)

In that respect, the column would be an audition for other gigs. But for Stein? This is a guy who has been shilling for years—for nonstick cookware, paper towels, Clear Eyes and lately, alongside Shaquille O’Neal, for Comcast Cable—so he has long been on the wrong side of the PR taboo. The irony is it was undoubtedly his celebrity that commended him to the Times in the first place, a status created by his rise as a personality on TV, in movies and, yes, in commercials.

So what actually happened? My guess is that somebody at the Times looked at the FreeScore commercial, gagged, re-read some of his columns, said that’s enough, and sent Stein packing.

Fine. If a columnist is making a fool of himself, is touting a borderline product, or lacks the throw-weight the paper expects, fire him. Call it brand-management, call it institutional vanity, call it reader service.

But don’t accuse him of ethical wrongdoing when there isn’t any.

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