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.
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. I was really thrilled. I have written for the Washington Post (when I was a teenager), for the Wall Street Journal edit page under the legendary Bob Bartley, for Barron’s, under the really great Alan Abelson and Jim Meagher, for my beloved American Spectator, under the great Bob and Wlady, and now having a regular column at the Times was going to be great stuff.
The column went well. I got lots of excellent fan mail and fine feedback from my editors, who, however, kept changing.
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.)
Expelled was a plea for open discussion of the possibility that life might have started with an Intelligent Designer. This idea, that freedom of academic discussion on an issue as to which there is avid scientific disagreement has value, seems obvious to me. But it drives the atheists and neo-Darwinists crazy and they responded viciously.
Some of them started a campaign against me in various forums, including letters to the Times.
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.
Still, my editor at the Times stood by me loyally and was steadfast, even inspiring.
Now, in the time I had been doing my column, roughly five or six years, I had done many commercials for goods and services. 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.
Meanwhile, the haters connected with atheism and neo-Darwinism continued to attack me.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
This commercial was red meat for the Ben Stein haters left over from the Expelled days. 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 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. (I read the e-mail while having pizza at the Seattle airport on my way to Sandpoint.) 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.
Never mind. I was history. “You should have consulted us,” was the basic line.
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.)
I still do not see the conflict of interest. Credit reports on the Internet never was in my subject area. However, I don’t sue newspapers. 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.)
The whole subject reminds me of a conversation Bob Dylan had long ago with a reporter who asked him what he thought about how much criticism he was getting for going from acoustic to electric guitar. “There are a lot of people who have knives and forks,” he said, “and they have nothing on their plates, so they have to cut something.”
I will miss writing my column for the Times but I miss many things. There were some great people there, really standup people. I got to love some of them. But as to the haters and the weak willed, I think my sister and Bob Dylan had it right.
You will still see my little thoughts, maybe in some big places. And I can put this Times gig on my résumé when I apply for Social Security. And, I really mean this, I will pray for those who use me despitefully, even if the neo-Darwinists think that’s a waste of time. It’s not.
One final thought. Well, maybe two final thoughts: first, it’s sad that the Internet has become a backyard gossip freeway for the whole world’s sick people to pour out their neuroses. I have seen a tiny fraction of all of the hate mail that’s come in the wake of the NY Times announcement (which they promised they would not make in any event). Too many sick people out there on the web for comfort.
Second, among those who are not really such hot items, I fully include myself. Without doubt, I have made as many mistakes as a person not in custody can make. I make no claims to anything even remotely like perfection or even desirability as a role model. It is just that in this case, I didn’t do anything wrong. In my life, I have done plenty wrong. I am not the master. I am the servant and a poor one at that.