Ben Stein got fired from his freelance gig with the New York Times! And it’s because of his previously reported ethical lapse in advertising for a “free” credit report site that actually charges for your credit report. This all leads to: Shorter Ben Stein:
Slightly less shorter Ben Stein:
Everyone used to love my column until Expelled, and then people were mean on the internet and got me fired from a job I didn’t want anyway.
I usually hate the format of a fisking, but this piece needs a fine-toothed comb to capture all the stupid.
A fisking, FYI, involves me interposing corrections to Stein’s article, thus demonstrating his willful disregard for the advantages of telling the truth.
My sister nailed it many years ago when she said, “Your basic human is not such a hot item.”
Keep that filed in your head as I tell my little tale.
Remembering meaningless gibberish from someone you know nothing about will distract you from the nonsense to follow.
About five or six years ago, roughly, I was solicited to write a column every two weeks for the Sunday New York Times Business Section.
A quick check reveals that he started writing regularly for the Times in April, 2005, having written with some frequency for them before then. He then engages in some self-promotion, which we’ll skip.
…The column went well. I got lots of excellent fan mail and fine feedback from my editors, who, however, kept changing.
Turnover in publishing?! Who knew! If only someone had written about that problem 2 years before his first column for the Times. It should also be noted that reaction was not uniformly positive. Felix Salmon, a financial columnist distinguished from Ben Stein in no small part by possessing both skills as a writer and an understanding of the world of finance, began calling for Stein to be fired in September, 2007.
The first real super problem I had was when the movie I narrated and co-wrote, Expelled–No Intelligence Allowed, was in progress. A “science writer” for the Times blasted the movie on the front page and noted that I, whom she repeatedly called “…a freelance writer…” (not a columnist ) for the Times, was somehow involved. That was followed by a really fantastically angry blast against the movie by a reviewer who really hated it a lot. (I note that the Times also disliked Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Hmm.)
The egotism here is unworthy of particular comment. The Times, writing about someone they have a financial relationship with, have an obligation to clarify the nature of that relationship. Stein is not on the staff of the New York Times, but works on a freelance basis. So the article, being written by responsible people, noted the relationship and referred to it by its name. For this, Ben Stein gets upset. Must we go on? Yes we must.
Because these events did not transpire until months after a major financial columnist began a weekly feature calling for Stein’s ouster. Stein never mentions “Ben Stein Watch” or Felix Salmon. He does not inform readers that his financial claims were often flatly wrong both as a matter of theory and of empirical fact, nor that his bizarre conspiracy theories were widely lambasted and treated as, well, bizarre conspiracy theories.
Instead, he prattles about Expelled briefly, then complains:
atheists and neo-Darwinists … responded viciously.
In fact, the people he interviewed noted that his interview tactics were dishonest, that the movie’s claims were false, and that the emperor generally has no clothes. Stein replied to the ADL’s criticism of his efforts to blame Darwin for the Holocaust by saying that the Holocaust (and its causes) are “none of their fucking business.”
Some of them started a campaign against me in various forums, including letters to the Times.
Expelled was released in April, 2008. “Ben Stein Watch” had its genesis in May, 2007. Ben Stein does not understand that the arrow of time moves only one way. In the previous paragraph, he self-righteously proclaimed that “that freedom of … discussion on an issue as to which [sic] there is avid … disagreement has value, seems obvious to me.” Now the sending of letters to the editor is some sort of sacrilege.
At roughly the same time, I made a new set of antagonists by repeatedly and in detail criticizing the real power in this country, the “investment bank” Goldman Sachs, for what seemed to me questionable behavior. This elicited a mountain of favorable mail but also some complaints by well-placed persons.
Apparently Ben Stein does not believe that Goldman Sachs is an investment bank. He also doesn’t think science writers are science writers, nor that freelance writers are freelance writers, but I digress.
Still, my editor at the Times stood by me loyally and was steadfast, even inspiring.
Remember how there was always massive turnover in his editorial staff? Suddenly they’re bosom buddies.
Now, in the time I had been doing my column, roughly five or six years,
His first column was April 27, 2005. No point saying “roughly.”
I had done many commercials for goods and services.
Including “Clear Eyes” and crummy movies.
No one at the Times ever said a word negatively about these. In fact, when I did a series of commercials with Shaquille O’Neal, the legendary basketball star, one of my superiors at the Times asked me for souvenirs. No one ever told me in any way, by word, look, or gesture, not to do commercials.
In fact, the New York Times ethics guidelines state clearly that “freelance contributors to the Times Company’s journalism, while not its employees, should accept the same ethical standards as staff members as a condition of their assignments for us. If they violate these standards, they should be denied further assignments.” Those standards include: “Staff members may not engage in financial counseling (except through the articles they write). They may not manage money for others, offer investment advice, or help operate an investment company of any sort, with or without pay.” So Stein’s advertisement, advising viewers to use a particular financial service, would be a violation. Whether he also violated a standard requiring that “Staff members may not offer endorsements or testimonials for books, films, television programs or any other programs, products or ventures” is debatable.
Meanwhile, the haters connected with atheism and neo-Darwinism continued to attack me.
As did competent financial analysts and movie reviewers.
Then, two things happened to change and end my career at the Times. Well, maybe three. The Times told me they were forced by budgetary pressures to only run me every four weeks. This was a blow and I started to think about where else I might write. (I had been solicited by many major publications while at the Times but my editors had asked me not to write for them and I did as asked.)
His first substantive paragraph called “having a regular column at the Times” “great stuff.” And not because of the pay or the frequency. Whatever.
But the two main things, as I see them, were that I started criticizing Mr. Obama quite sharply over his policies and practices. I had tried to do this before over the firing of Rick Wagoner from the Chairmanship of GM. My column had questioned whether there was a legal basis for the firing by the government, what law allowed or authorized the federal government to fire the head of what was then a private company, and just where the Obama administration thought their limits were, if anywhere. This column was flat out nixed by my editors at the Times because in their opinion Mr. Obama inherently had such powers.
We have no idea what his column actually said, nor what the editors actually said. And Stein is hardly a reliable source. Did his editors think Obama “inherently” had the power to fire anyone, or did they think that a majority shareholder in a publicly traded company had the power to oust its CEO? There is a difference. But if Stein is to be believed, he’s forbidden from criticizing Obama.
They did let me run a piece querying what I thought was a certain lack of focus in Mr. Obama’s world but that was it, and then came another issue.
So he wasn’t forbidden from criticizing the President, just to have his criticism be accurate? Clearly these conditions were excessive.
I had done a commercial for an Internet aggregating company called FreeScore. This commercial offered people a week of free access to their credit scores and then required them to pay for further such access.
As many people have noted, the full credit report is available at no cost whatsoever from annualcreditreport.com, and it is a bit of a bait and switch to offer a free credit score and then to charge money for it.
This commercial was red meat for the Ben Stein haters left over from the Expelled days.
Not to mention those who had been criticizing Stein’s incompetence long before Expelled was released.
They bombarded the Times with letters. They confused (or some of them seemingly confused ) FreeScore with other companies that did not have FreeScore’s unblemished record with consumer protection agencies. (FreeScore has a perfect record.) They demanded of the high pooh-bahs at the Times that they fire me because of what they called a conflict of interest.
Of course, there was no conflict of interest. I had never written one word in the Times or anywhere else about getting credit scores on line. Not a word.
But what do the ethics guidelines binding employees and freelancers for the Times actually require? Well, “it is an inherent conflict of interest for a journalist to perform public relations work.” Also, “Staff members may not engage in financial counseling (except through the articles they write).” Such as urging people to pay for a credit score from one company when the report is available for free by law.
But somehow, these people bamboozled some of the high pooh-bahs at the Times into thinking there was a conflict of interest. In an e-mail sent to me by a person I had never met nor even heard of, I was fired.
Bamboozled into seeing that Stein had violated the letter and spirit of the paper’s ethical rules. And all of a sudden, his BFF editor has been replaced by someone he’d never heard of. Crackerjack journalism!
(I read the e-mail while having pizza at the Seattle airport on my way to Sandpoint.)
This is the sort of exciting journalism that readers of the New York Times will miss out on. WTF is Sandpoint? And why do I care?
I called the editor and explained the situation. He said the problem was “the appearance” of conflict of interest. I asked how that could be when I never wrote about the subject at all. He said the real problem was that FreeScore was a major financial company and I wrote about finance. But, as I told him, FreeScore was a small Internet aggregator, not a bank or insurer.
Newsgator is a “small internet aggregator.” Yahoo.com is a big internet aggregator. FreeScore is a sham that sells you something you could get for free. Furthermore, the ethical guidelines are clear that “Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept employment or compensation of any sort from individuals or organizations who figure in coverage they are likely to provide, prepare or supervise. The senior executive of each newsroom may authorize reasonable exceptions (for example, to let a teacher work part time as a copy editor).” Emphasis added. The issue is not whether he did ever cover Freescore, but whether he might do so in the future.
Never mind. I was history. “You should have consulted us,” was the basic line.
That line also occupies a prominent place in the Times’ ethical guidelines: “11. Every staff member is expected to read these rules carefully and to think about how they might apply to his or her duties. A lack of familiarity with their provisions cannot excuse a violation; to the contrary, it aggravates the violation. The provisions presented here can offer only broad principles and some examples. No written document could anticipate every possibility. Thus we expect staff members to consult their local newsroom management if they have doubts about any particular situation or opportunity covered by this set of rules. In most cases an exchange of e-mail should suffice.”
Of course, there was not one word of complaint when I did commercials for immense public companies. By a total coincidence, I was tossed overboard immediately after my column attacking Obama. (You can attack Obama from the left at the Times but not from the right.)
By an amazing coincidence, he was let go immediately after violating the clearly stated ethical rules for working at the Times. As he notes, he had criticized the President without incident.
I still do not see the conflict of interest. Credit reports on the Internet never was in my subject area.
And yet FreeScore thought he’d be a good spokesman. Perhaps because he was a financial writer who writes books about personal finance, a topic that includes credit reports.
However, I don’t sue newspapers.
Or wear white after Labor Day.
And the gig was getting to be so small that it really had a minor effect on my economic life. Still, I shall miss waking up on Sunday to see my column unless a neighbor here in Beverly Hills has stolen my paper. (No place, not one place, in Sandpoint sells the Times.)
At this point, the essay devolves into self-important blather of this sort. I don’t know or care where Sandpoint is, nor who there carries the New York Times. I also don’t care about his neighbors in Beverly Hills, nor the fact that he can memorize a banal quote from a Bob Dylan interview but cannot figure out when his first column was written.
…I will miss writing my column for the Times but I miss many things.
Of the many things he’s lost, he misses his New York Times column less than his money, his credibility, and his mind.
He prays for us all and admits he’s a sinner, though not as big as we all are.