The New York Times’ Joe Nocera wrote a column this weekend about the efforts of Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne to discredit financial journalists who write negatively about his company or who question the “naked short-selling conspirary” that he has espoused for the past year. Nocera’s column is part of Times Select, so I haven’t posted about it until now since it is appearing in other newspapers and can be read for free.
Some background: Earlier this year, Byrne responded to interview questions from BusinessWeek’s Timothy Mullaney and the New York Post’s Roddy Boyd by posting his answers on an Internet site. Byrne took this tactic to circumvent what he thought were going to be negative storis written by journalists being fed a story line by short sellers. In fact, Byrne has sued the alleged short-selling firm.
Then comes this week, and one of the business journalists — the Marketwatch’s Herb Greenberg — is subpoenaed by the SEC, along with Dow Jones reporter Carol Remond, looking into Byrne’s allegations against the short sellers. According to Nocera’s column, Byrne has knowledge of the subpoenas and sends some strange — and menacing — e-mails to Greenberg. One of them read: “”As I take a sip, ‘I find myself curious: do you guys know? Are you sitting somewhere, blithely oblivious, still chuckling about Whacky Patty, and all that? Or do you understand now that this is going to end badly for you?”
Nocera’s analysis: “This is what Bryne does: along with O’Brien, he bullies and taunts and goads the small handful of reporters who dare to write about Overstock, making it clear that there will be a price to be paid for tackling the company or its chief executive. And as a result, financial reporters have become very chary of taking him on.”
I am sorry to say that I missed Byrne’s appearance earlier today on CNBC’s Kudlow & Co. But apparently he called Greenberg, one of the most respected business journalists in the field, a “crooked reporter.” That’s at least what former BusinessWeek reporter Gary Weiss, an acquaintance of Greenberg’s is stating on his blog.
Greenberg replied on Jim Cramer’s Mad Money show, saying that Byrne had libeled and slandered him. “I’m proud of what I do,” said Greenberg. “The SEC and I, we’re kind of doing the same thing. What I do for a living is help people avoid getting taken advantage of.” At the end of the segment, Cramer said to him: “Listen buddy, you’re not corrupt.”
I don’t expect this to be the last we’ve heard of this.
When Byrne posted his interviews on the Internet, I took it as a case of the changing relationship between business journalists and sources with the Web coming into play. But to go onto cable television and call a journalist “crooked” smacks of vindictiveness and a thin skin. I can see now why a lot of people think that Byrne is strange.