Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Is a Former CJR Editor a Patrick Byrne 'Business Partner'?

Mark Mitchell

Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne has done everything but strip nude in public to attract attention lately, in order to deflect attention from his company's chronic inability to make money and the ongoing SEC investigation. He is so out of control that he recently made common cause with the Universal Express fraud, according to Zac Bissonnette of Bloggingstocks.com.

I've been ignoring his infantile antics, and I was not surprised to see this article in a Utah college newspaper, containing the usual fantasies and smears. What I did find interesting was his reference (later deleted--see update) to a fellow named Mark Mitchell as his "business partner." That name may not mean much to you, but Mitchell is the former editor of CJR Daily's "Audit" feature on the financial press.

While there, Mitchell worked for many months on a CJR feature concerning Byrne's nutty allegations against journalists, including Herb Greenberg of Marketwatch.com and others who have written critically on Overstock. He interviewed myself and others extensively, and his open pro-Byrne bias was obvious. (He viewed Enron as a victim of short-selling, which I thought curious enough to mention in a Salon article.)

The CJR article never ran, and Mitchell departed as the Audit's editor. His tenure at the Audit had been, to put it delicately, controversial. See also this and this.

So, guess who emails and calls me two days ago? Yup, Mark Mitchell. His email said as follows:

Gary,
To refresh your memory: I was working on a story about short-sellers and the media while at the Columbia Journalism Review.
I took a break for awhile, but I'm working on the story again.
May I call you to ask a few questions?
If so, please let me know your phone number.
Thanks very much.

Mark Mitchell

I wrote back as follows: "For what publication are you writing?" and expected a prompt answer to this routine question. As any journalist (and any journalism review editor, surely) can attest, it is S.O.P. to tell one the publication one is writing for, or, if the piece has not been sold, to say so.

I got no response to the email but I did get a call from Mitchell a few hours later. "I'm working on the same article I was working on two years ago, taking that up again." said Mitchell. For what publication? "Can't tell you what publication right now."

Now, as I said earlier, that is not S.O.P. In fact, it is not terribly ethical. Remember that this is the former operator of a journalism review website.

It's a secret publication? "Something like that, yeah." Has this article been sold to a publication? "It has not."

At last, the truth. Or is it? Has the article indeed been "paid for" by Overstock's media-obsessed CEO? I don't know the answer to that. However, if Byrne is to be believed -- and he is as lacking in credibility as one can find in a CEO -- it would appear that Mitchell is not actually functioning as a journalist at all, but as a "business partner" of the subject of the article.

If so, and if he is working to add to Overstock's pantheon of smears, the word for what he did is called "pretexting." At the very least, it would be a grave violation of journalism ethics for him to write an article about a "business partner."

However, let's not jump to conclusions. Knowing Byrne, my tendency is to believe that Mitchell is not his "business partner," that he just wants to revive the hatchet job on Greenberg that CJR refused to publish, and that he was less than forthcoming with me about the fact that he hasn't sold it just yet.

I've asked Mitchell for his side of the story, so we'll see what he has to say about that. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Still no word from Mitchell. Meanwhile I see that the article in the Utah paper has been dramatically altered to remove the reference to Mitchell as his "business partner," along with all references to myself. (And no, I did not ask for that.) A correction is promised.

Even as corrected, what's in this article is just plain weird:
Additionally, Byrne remarked on how writer Mark Mitchell was threatened in New York and told to stay away from "the Irish guy," which Byrne believes was himself
I hope that Mitchell returns my call as I'd like to ask him about this anecdote, which is similar to a fairy tale in the article from Byrne. He talks about a "visit to a greasy spoon" that also has "crock" written all over it.

I'm also interested to know if he is the source of this fish story, which contends that Mitchell's departure from CJR was connected to some hedge fund money arriving at Columbia, that the life of his child was threatened, and that evil forces conspired to keep the article from being published. Goodness! I think Mitchell needs to tell the full story of that.

(It later was revealed that appearances were not deceiving. As he later admitted, Mitchell was working as a PR factotum for Byrne when he appeared with him in Utah. See this subsequent item.)

© 2008 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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