Ben Stein’s ethical lapse

By Felix Salmon
August 17, 2009
Edward Wasserman, who glories in the title of Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, has mounted a weird half-hearted defense of Ben Stein in the Miami Herald. Yes, he says, Stein's columns were "windy and self-indulgent". But there was no ethical wrongdoing on Stein's part, and the NYT was wrong to say that there was ethical wrongdoing when it fired him.

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Edward Wasserman, who glories in the title of Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, has mounted a weird half-hearted defense of Ben Stein in the Miami Herald. Yes, he says, Stein’s columns were “windy and self-indulgent”. But there was no ethical wrongdoing on Stein’s part, and the NYT was wrong to say that there was ethical wrongdoing when it fired him.

This jibes with Ben Stein’s own self-defense, in which he said that he “didn’t do anything wrong”. But it’s Stein and Wasserman who are wrong here, on multiple levels.

Firstly, and most importantly, it’s ethically wrong for anybody, NYT columnist or otherwise, to shill for FreeScore. It’s an evil company, devoted to tricking America’s poorest, most indebted, and most financially illiterate citizens into paying money they can’t afford for a service they don’t need and which is available for free elsewhere. The job of a business columnist is to write columns in the public interest. The job of a FreeScore pitchman is most emphatically against the public interest. There’s your conflict right there.

But there were narrower conflicts, too, which Wasserman zeroes in on and dismisses:

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.

Wasserman read four columns by Ben Stein, and on the strength of those four columns concluded that Stein didn’t offer financial advice in his column? I know that journalists are lazy, but that’s really taking the biscuit. If he’s really going to imply that I was wrong when I said that Stein offers financial advice in his column, he might at least have asked me first why I said that. And it wouldn’t have taken me very long to find for instance this column, where Stein not only offers his “best advice” on investments, but even gives ticker symbols for what to buy.

Of course Stein gives financial advice: he’s written entire books of the stuff, not to mention his other media appearances and columns elsewhere. Financial advice is a huge part of Stein’s shtick, and that’s absolutely one of the reasons that FreeScore wanted to hire him: he’s known (unfortunately) as a trusted dispenser of financial advice, and so he comes with some measure of built-in credibility as a financial pitchman. His NYT column is part of what gave him that credibility. So yes, there’s a massive conflict there.

What’s more, Stein was in direct contravention of the NYT’s own ethics guidelines, which state that NYT journalists — and that term includes freelancers such as Stein — cannot perform paid PR work. How does Wasserman get around that one?

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.

Yep, a professor of journalism ethics has managed to go on the record as defending an explicit breach of written guidelines, on the grounds that hey, the same journalist had breached those written guidelines in the past, so they can therefore be safely ignored.

Clearly Stein did get an implicit or explicit pass on the no-shilling guidelines at some point. But equally clearly the FreeScore gig was a step too far, most likely because it had such a big overlap with the subject of his column. “I’ve broken the law in the past and got away with it” is never the most convincing defense at the best of times, and in this case it’s particularly weak.

Oh, and one other thing: contra Wasserman, the NYT never actually said in as many words that the FreeScore gig “was a conflict of interest for Stein”. Here’s the official statement from NYT spokeswoman Catherine Matthis:

Ben Stein’s fine work for us as a columnist for Sunday Business had to end, we told him, after we learned that he had become a commercial spokesman for FreeScore, a financial services company. Ben didn’t understand when he signed on with FreeScore that this might pose a potential conflict for him as a contributing columnist for the Times, because he hadn’t written about credit scores or this company. But, we decided that being a commercial spokesman for FreeScore while writing his column wouldn’t be appropriate.

The NYT isn’t saying that the ad was a conflict of interest, it’s saying that it might pose a potential conflict of interest, and that it was not “appropriate” for Stein to write his column while also shilling for FreeScore. That seems entirely reasonable to me. So Wasserman’s search for “a genuine conflict of interest” is silly: why not just take the NYT’s words at face value, and admit that Stein’s position as a financial columnist was rife with potential conflicts of interest.

What’s more, Wasserman’s definition of “conflict of interest” is ridiculously narrow:

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.

Undisclosed? Is he serious? Does the Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University really think that journalists can accept any amount of money from any constituency — even within their own beat — and that’s fine so long as they disclose it? Maybe if he does then it’s easier to see why he agrees with Stein that there was no ethical lapse in this case. But it’s also easy to see why the likes of the NYT shouldn’t pay him much attention.

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Comments
10 comments so far

Go get ‘em pussycat

Posted by otto | Report as abusive

I hate to say it, but Wasserman’s right about one thing — Ben Stein doesn’t provide financial advice. It’s more of a blinkered antiadvice. Index! Don’t index! Closed-end funds! Buy-and-hold! Time the market! Buy stocks! Buy high-fee annuities! He’s the worst.

btw, before this he was shilling for the high-cost annuities business, which is even worse than the credit check people.

Ben Stein is a tool. Anyone who follows his “advice” is a fool.

Posted by kyle | Report as abusive

Wasserman’s argument seems to be that since the Times went along with Stein’s little ethical deviations, they have no right to complain about a big one. If I was a con man, I’d be feeling a strong desire right now to meet Wasserman and explain to him how I really and truly want to be his very best new friend.

Posted by MattF | Report as abusive

//The job of a business columnist is to write columns in the public interest. The job of a FreeScore pitchman is most emphatically against the public interest. There’s your conflict right there.//

Since when are business columnists required to give a rat’s ass about the public interest? I don’t care if my financial advice column gives me a good idea on how we should all invest to help poor people. He better give me advice that helps my investing. If he doesn’t–and Stein didn’t–he gets fired. Yay for humanity.

I otherwise much appreciate your frequent Stein watches. It’s nice to see you calling him out on his mostly ridiculous mutterings…

Posted by Tim C | Report as abusive

Loved it. I don’t have any particular beef with Ben Stein, other than a general distaste for his politics and manner of supporting himself, but he’s no journalist. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he doesn’t understand his violation of the Times’ ethics policy. Of course, we should also reserve some disappointment for the Times itself, for flagrantly violating it’s own policy by hiring him in the first place.

Posted by Michael | Report as abusive

Would you please email me a copy of this excellent column? I am unable to print it.

I would like to quote from it in the upcoming 10th edition of the Missouri Group’s “News Reporting and Writing” text. I write the chapter on ethics.

Thank you.

Don Ranly, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Missouri School of Journalism

I’m not exactly sure what I did in my column on Ben Stein that warranted the sneering tone of your otherwise interesting post, but I’m going to stick to the substance of your comments in this response.

One of the things I try to do as an ethics teacher is puzzle through newsworthy dust-ups like the Ben Stein firing and try to sort out the rights and wrongs with some care. I think that’s especially important because the language of ethics is frequently used by news managers to give themselves moral legitimacy when what they’re really doing is taking action to avoid institutional embarrassment, protect their brands, assert their authority—any number of reasons that may be perfectly valid, but which aren’t really related to ethics. I think that’s what happened here.

Was Stein dispensing financial advice in his Times column? Not that I saw. You made fun of me for reading only his four most recent columns, and I suppose I should’ve read more, but if he’s so manifestly in the advice business, as you suggest, it shouldn’t take extensive research to ferret that out. And if he hasn’t been in the advice business for the past four months, why fire him now?

Actually, the one example you offered of supposed advice in his columns for the Times (I don’t think his writing elsewhere is relevant here) was a column from October 2007, nearly two years ago. And the fact is, most of that column was devoted to the kind of non-financial, “wear sunscreen” bromides that Stein seems to default to. His main financial tidbit there was advice to avoid individual stocks and buy index funds, not exactly cutting-edge counsel (since it has been my own preferred way of losing money in recent years.)

Back to the Times’ behavior. I didn’t find the paper’s explanations persuasive or credible. My point about the paper’s ban on outside PR work is that Stein had been doing such work for years before the Times hired him and continued doing it during his tenure. Paradoxically, I noted, it was probably his ersatz celebrity as a media personality that prompted them to take him on as a columnist in the first place. So they knew about and tolerated his outside PR work. As you yourself acknowledge. So why the firing now?

Similarly, to me the spokeswoman’s claim that they sought to address a “potential” conflict, which you quote approvingly, is especially disturbing. That means she recognizes Stein’s shilling isn’t a problem but says it might become one. Or might not. It seems to me that a more prudent way to handle this would have been to figure out what would make it a real conflict—not just a potential one—and instruct Stein accordingly, perhaps telling him to sever whatever connection the Times found unacceptable as a condition for his continuing to write for them.

I’m sympathetic with your outrage over FreeScore.com, and you may very well be right that they’re an unsavory outfit. But the Times never mentioned that in explaining the firing—never said, for instance, that certain affiliations are OK and others are contrary to what the paper stands for, a level of precision I for one would welcome. The Times wasn’t asserting a right to vet outside sources. Consequently, we’re left to conclude that a free-floating ban on outside work that the paper itself had long chosen to ignore in Stein’s case was suddenly and inexplicably being enforced.

In that respect the Times failed to provide a measure of moral leadership in helping the industry understand just what ethical principles should govern journalists and how they should be applied. Instead I think the paper’s action suffered from a lack of basic fairness. Your evident distaste for Ben Stein shouldn’t blind you to the possibility that in this instance he was treated shabbily by an organization that ought to know better.

One more thing. Your concluding point raises a good question about whether disclosure eliminates a conflict of interest. I don’t think it does, but it’s a more complicated question than either of us has time for here. As I’m sure you know, there’s a lot of loose talk in the online community about the curative powers of transparency. Entanglements that would otherwise be corrupting are thought to be somehow purged by disclosure, and people are declaring themselves free to venture into reporting and comment on areas where they are plainly conflicted by supposedly immunizing themselves with a disclosure.

I don’t think conflicts of interest work that way and are corrected so easily. So by defining a conflict of interest in terms of an undisclosed outside obligation I didn’t mean to suggest that it would disappear if disclosed. I do think keeping the affiliation secret makes the likelihood of harm greater.

Thanks for letting me respond.

Posted by Edward Wasserman | Report as abusive

Edward —

Thanks for your long response. Let me reply point by point:

Was Stein dispensing financial advice in his Times column? Not that I saw. You made fun of me for reading only his four most recent columns, and I suppose I should’ve read more, but if he’s so manifestly in the advice business, as you suggest, it shouldn’t take extensive research to ferret that out.

Whether Stein is “manifestly” in the advice business is neither here nor there. The point is that he’s in the advice business, and he’s in the advice business in his NYT column. Maybe not every week, sure, but he goes there, and that’s more than enough.

If he hasn’t been in the advice business for the past four months, why fire him now?

Um, because he wasn’t shilling for FreeScore four months ago. It’s the shilling which caused him to be fired, not the financial advice. Extending financial advice is what financial columnists *do*, and what they’re *expected* to do. It’s a given. Which means that they can’t shill financial-services companies at the same time: that’s a conflict.

Actually, the one example you offered of supposed advice in his columns for the Times (I don’t think his writing elsewhere is relevant here) was a column from October 2007, nearly two years ago. And the fact is, most of that column was devoted to the kind of non-financial, “wear sunscreen” bromides that Stein seems to default to. His main financial tidbit there was advice to avoid individual stocks and buy index funds, not exactly cutting-edge counsel (since it has been my own preferred way of losing money in recent years.)
Hey, no one ever said that Stein was cutting-edge. But that’s the whole point. He’s using his NYT column to give common-sense advice to ordinary people. He’s *exactly* the kind of person who’s *most* conflicted by shilling for a finance company which uses TV advertising to reach the poor masses.

I didn’t find the paper’s explanations persuasive or credible… I’m sympathetic with your outrage over FreeScore.com, and you may very well be right that they’re an unsavory outfit. But the Times never mentioned that in explaining the firing—never said, for instance, that certain affiliations are OK and others are contrary to what the paper stands for, a level of precision I for one would welcome… the Times failed to provide a measure of moral leadership in helping the industry understand just what ethical principles should govern journalists and how they should be applied.

I’ll take all these together, and simply point out that the NYT promised Stein it wouldn’t say anything about the firing at all. Eventually, Ryan Tate of Gawker got wind of the story, and the NYT was forced to put out a short formal statement. But a response to Gawker is not the place to “provide a measure of moral leadership in helping the industry understand just what ethical principles should govern journalists and how they should be applied”.

they knew about and tolerated his outside PR work. As you yourself acknowledge. So why the firing now? Because there’s a qualitative difference between shilling for non-stick pans and shilling for FreeScore. Maybe the earlier shilling was tolerable, but shilling for FreeScore wasn’t. Is that so hard to understand?

we’re left to conclude that a free-floating ban on outside work that the paper itself had long chosen to ignore in Stein’s case was suddenly and inexplicably being enforced.

Suddenly, maybe. Inexplicably, not in the slightest. I think I’ve more than demonstrated that there’s oodles of credible explanation for enforcing the ban at this juncture, after this particularly egregious violation of the ban.

Your evident distaste for Ben Stein shouldn’t blind you to the possibility that in this instance he was treated shabbily by an organization that ought to know better.
Blind me to the possibility? I’m not blind to the possibility, I just spent a long and detailed blog entry examining that possibility before rejecting it.

I suppose we might go back to the rules-based a/o/t principles-based conception of ethics. Your conception seems to be rules-based: if A is tolerated, and B is a lot like A, then B should be tolerated too. Whereas I’m more principles-based: it’s just wrong, on many different levels, for a financial columnist to shill for FreeScore. Therefore the firing is more than justified, and any attempt to attack it is going to be legalistic and nit-picky.

Posted by Felix Salmon | Report as abusive

You need to make your case that this particular company, not its parent company is sleazy. Stein argues that FreeScore was different.

I view Stein as an entertainer and I think most people who read is column do too.

As a moderate democrat, I think the far left wing of our party have long, long been frustrated by voices like Stein that they disagree with, and this is just an excuse to purge him from the NY Times.

Posted by bob | Report as abusive
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