Comments on: Ben Stein’s ethical lapse http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/ A slice of lime in the soda Sun, 26 Oct 2014 19:05:02 +0000 hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.5 By: bob http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/comment-page-1/#comment-5843 Sat, 22 Aug 2009 21:10:38 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/#comment-5843 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.

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By: Felix Salmon http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/comment-page-1/#comment-5632 Tue, 18 Aug 2009 19:56:08 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/#comment-5632 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.

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By: Edward Wasserman http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/comment-page-1/#comment-5624 Tue, 18 Aug 2009 19:06:46 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/#comment-5624 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.

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By: Don Ranly http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/comment-page-1/#comment-5622 Tue, 18 Aug 2009 18:49:14 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/#comment-5622 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

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By: Michael http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/comment-page-1/#comment-5589 Mon, 17 Aug 2009 21:36:17 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/#comment-5589 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.

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By: Tim C http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/comment-page-1/#comment-5573 Mon, 17 Aug 2009 19:09:12 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/#comment-5573 //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…

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By: MattF http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/comment-page-1/#comment-5564 Mon, 17 Aug 2009 17:14:02 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/#comment-5564 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.

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By: kyle http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/comment-page-1/#comment-5562 Mon, 17 Aug 2009 16:15:21 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/#comment-5562 Ben Stein is a tool. Anyone who follows his “advice” is a fool.

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By: chrismealy http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/comment-page-1/#comment-5561 Mon, 17 Aug 2009 16:07:02 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/#comment-5561 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.

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By: otto http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/comment-page-1/#comment-5559 Mon, 17 Aug 2009 15:51:59 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2009/08/17/ben-steins-ethical-lapse/#comment-5559 Go get ’em pussycat

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