If you live in a state where Comcast operates, you’ve likely been inundated all summer long with the “Shaq&Stein” series of commercials pairing the odd couple of Ben Stein and Shaquille O’Neal.
Stein taking that role was puzzling enough (his portfolio must have taken quite a hit during the downturn). But it was another endorsement opportunity that got him a pink slip from the gray lady. The New York Times last week fired Stein as a Sunday Business columnist for “violating ethics guidelines” stemming from a commercial he appeared in for “free” credit score operation FreeScore.com.
The Times‘ ethics policy states “it is an inherent conflict for a journalist to perform public relations work, paid or unpaid.” A widely (online) circulated statement attributed to Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis said:
“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.”
Stein is a familiar face on the insurance and financial services speaking circuit. I most recently saw him speak at the 2009 AALU Annual Meeting in Washington, and had seen him once or twice before at other industry conferences. His fame and dry sense of humor, perhaps more than his views as a self-proclaimed economist, have always made him a popular draw at such events. Despite his monotone voice (which has become noticeably more coarse in recent years), he is always interesting and good for a few laughs when he speaks to a group of financial professionals. He told the crowd at AALU, “Really my most important work is cleaning up after Suze Orman’s mess.”
While his recent endorsements have made his face more ubiquitous than ever, I wonder if a step like the Times firing will have an impact on his lucrative speaking career. At the very least, I hope it will make him a little more selective about who he endorses.