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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