Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ben Stein's Sundays off

Avid readers of the Sunday New York Times will find their favorite dead-tree doorstop lighter by one columnist this Sunday. The services of Ben Stein, actor, pitchman and conservative economic gadfly, will no longer be required by the Gray Lady.

Gawker, quoting from a statement by The Times, reported on Friday that Stein was losing his “Everybody’s Business” column because of his role as a pitchman for FreeScore.com, a financial services company that peddles credit reports to consumers for exorbitant fees.

“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,” Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said in the statement. “But, we decided that being a commercial spokesman for FreeScore while writing his column wouldn't be appropriate.

“We are sorry to lose him as a columnist, and appreciate his work for the Times over the years.”



FreeScore.com employs a kind of bait-and-switch strategy, one that dovetails with these desperate financial times. Consumers using FreeScore services get access to a credit score, but are charged $30 a month for access to the credit report that gives that credit score — one of three from the major credit watch agencies — any value or meaning in evaluating overall creditworthiness.

It’s pretty much the same business model as freecreditreport.com, whose ads with down-at-the-heels musicians are a lot more entertaining than watching Stein sit on a park bench with an animated squirrel holding a sign.

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Stein has been on the public radar about this for awhile now. Felix Salmon, blogging for Reuters, took issue with Stein in a blog on July 16:

“Stein … has become a predatory bait-and-switch merchant, dangling a “free” credit report in front of people so that he can sock them with a massive monthly fee for, essentially, doing nothing at all. Naturally, the people who take him up on this offer will be those who can least afford it.

“The level to which Stein has now sunk is more than enough reason — as if the case for the prosecution weren't damning enough already — for the NYT to cancel Stein's contract forthwith. It's simply unconscionable for a newspaper of record to employ as its ‘Everybody's Business’ columnist someone who is surely making a vast amount of money by luring the unsuspecting into overpaying for a financial product they should under no circumstances buy.”

Apparently, The Times agrees.

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But shed no tears for Ben Stein. He’ll be taking Sundays off, but he’ll no doubt continue to earn a handsome living from his still-strong presence in the culture as a kind of nebbish-in-chief. The occasional actor (remember him in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” [“Bueller? … Bueller? … Bueller?”]?) and game-show host (“Win Ben Stein’s Money”) still has three network gigs hustling punditry (one of them, Fox News, should always be a safe haven for Stein, a former Nixon and Ford speechwriter and current Republican), a column on Yahoo! Finance, and a free-ranging column at American Spectator, a conservative magazine.

More recently he’s been shilling for Comcast cable TV services in ads pairing Stein with Shaquille O’Neal. And Stein’s probably still getting carfare-sized residual checks for cameo roles on “Seinfeld” and for his role selling Clear Eyes, an eye redness remover.

It’s a very safe bet that Ben Stein won’t need to avail himself of the services of the credit report company he works for. Payment for the overpriced services FreeScore offers to cash-strapped Americans will find their way, one way or another, into his pockets …

It’s the trickle-down economy at work! God bless America.
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Image credits: Ben Stein: Still from FreeScore.com ad.

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