09/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Think Again: Media Ethics "So Last Century"

Pity poor Ben Stein, fired by The New York Times for an egregious conflict of interest. Although he was trusted by Times readers to offer unbiased economic commentary, Stein could also be found in advertisements hawking a company that soaks suckers for $30 a month for access to a "free credit score" when in fact these are available to everyone, by law, and actually free. According to the Times, this clearly violated its ethics policy, which states "it is an inherent conflict for a journalist to perform public relations work, paid or unpaid."

Stein's complaint appears to be that he has violated this policy so many times in so many ways that he thinks it mean of the paper -- or perhaps the unnamed conspirators who are out to get him because he dared to question the wisdom of Barack Obama -- to finally enforce its declared policy. He opines on the website of The American Spectator that he did "not see the conflict of interest." But nevermind, he bucks himself up: "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."

Well, you have to sympathize with the poor fellow with the crime-ridden Beverly Hills address on at least one point: Media conflicts -- always exclusively beneficial to the wealthy and powerful -- are becoming so numerous and simultaneously egregious that it's hardly a wonder that Stein expected to continue to get away with his forever.

Take Richard Wolffe, for example, who is not a journalist, but he does get to play one on television. Wolffe, an ex-Newsweek reporter, now works as a corporate PR flack, according to his bio page at Public Strategies Inc., providing "high-level counsel and insight to our clients on how to manage their reputations in a complex public environment." He even mentions his television gig on his promotional materials for corporate clients: "Wolffe is an NBC political analyst. He provides political commentary on several MSNBC programs, 'Meet The Press,' and 'TODAY.'" Yet the above is, apparently, not something MSNBC thought to be worth mentioning to its viewers, even on the days when Wolffe served as guest-host for Keith Olbermann's show.

MSNBC did react to the negative publicity -- perhaps aided by their own PR flacks--as media corporations are wont to do, as if the perception and not the reality were the problem. (It's not as if they couldn't have known... ) But like Ben Stein, however, Wolffe doesn't see what the big deal is. "The idea that journalists are somehow not engaged in corporate activities is not really in touch with what's going on. Every conversation with journalists is about business models and advertisers," he explains. "You tell me where the line is between business and journalism."

Again, sadly, the fellow may have a point. Look at the deal, now confirmed by multiple sources, undertaken last April between Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to censor both Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly. Immelt complained that his parents watched O'Reilly and it upset his mom when O'Reilly put up Immelt's picture and blamed him for helping to kill American servicemen and women in Iraq. Ailes say it was really mean of Olbermann to keep bringing up the fact that O'Reilly was forced to settle a sexual harassment suit....

You can read the rest of Eric Alterman's analysis in his recent article, "
Think Again: Media Ethics: 'So Last Century'"

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.