Tuesday, April 06, 2010

When is Good Publicity Not So Great?

The answer is: when you're investigated by the SEC, and you lie in the Washington Post.

Yesterday, Overstock.com's wack-a-doo CEO Patrick Byrne was the subject of a puff piece by the AP. White collar crime-fighter Sam Antar tells me that he was talking to the writer of the article for literally weeks--and yet the AP reporter, Paul Foy, omitted crucial facts, and allowed Byrne to tell a breathtaking lie.

The problematic passage is as follows:

Byrne, who owns nearly 30 percent of the company's shares, says Overstock's accounting errors were generally conservative. The latest involved 0.1 percent of revenue and gave the company no advantage, he said.
Foy left out entirely that correcting the "accounting errors" had turned a much-ballyhooed fourth quarter 2008 profit into a loss. It's right there in 10-K, in black and white.

That is not a small thing. When the phony fourth-quarter profits were announced in January 2009, it pushed up Overstock shares by 21%. The news agency to which I just linked, Reuters, has never revisited the subject.

Nor did the article report that Overstock had bitterly fought the restatements, firing one of its previous accounting firms, Grant Thornton, or that it is under a continuing SEC investigation. For a piece that took weeks to prepare, such omissions are inexcusable.

Foy also irresponsibly quotes Byrne as comparing whistleblower Sam Antar to Bernie Madoff, when it was Sam who had blown the whistle on Overstock's accounting gimmickry.

The problem, for Overstock at least, is that this lamentable journalism, containing a blatant lie by Overstock's CEO, was published today, lies intact, omissions glaring, in the Washington Post. Pickup of the AP story by the local Utah media can be ignored, but not splashed in the SEC's hometown daily.

The SEC may well be destined to give Overstock the Allied Capital Treatment, but the Post article doesn't help, unless the SEC officials involved are too busy writing their resumes to care.

This AP story, meanwhile, raises a journalistic issue that I thought had been settled a long time ago: when a CEO lies, and when the reporter knows it's a lie, is the reporter obligated to point that out?

The answer, which I think is pretty obvious, is "of course." Otherwise the media becomes embroiled in what is, in effect, a pump-and-dump scheme. Reuters can't be held responsible for its January 2009 article reporting the phony Overstock financials, but the same can't be said for the AP.

The other question that it raises, which I've broached before: To what extent are puff pieces like the AP's motivated by a desire to avoid Byrne's well-known penchant for attacking the press?

Barry Ritholtz
calls the AP story some of the worst business reporting he's ever seen. It's hard to argue with that.

© 2010 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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