Blogs level the journalism playing field

Say what you will about whether blogs are better or worse than traditional media, or just different. One thing is for sure: they certainly have a way of levelling the playing field between journalists and the people they write about. The latest case in point is a recent online battle between Patrick Byrne — the notoriously eccentric CEO of Overstock.com — and a reporter for BusinessWeek magazine named Tim Mullaney.

According to Mr. Byrne (who prefers to call himself Dr. Byrne), the BusinessWeek reporter emailed him a long list of questions about the company, which has been the subject of critical comments from Wall Street brokerages and investors — including billionaire entrepeneur, sports-team owner and blogger Mark Cuban. Among other things, Mr. Byrne has said that he believes he is the victim of a conspiracy that involves elements of the Mafia underworld and a group of short-sellers who want to drive down his stock price.

Although he said the piece was only going to be 1,200 words, the BusinessWeek reporter sent what appears to be three pages worth of questions, including some bizarre ones — such as who the CFO was involved with, whether they got married, and whether they are still together. At one point, the reporter asks Mr. Byrne whether he has gained weight as a result of stress (to which the Overstock CEO says he has gained weight because of a heart ailment). The reporter also asks whether he has been diagnosed with any mental illness.

At one point, Mr. Byrne makes fun of his interviewer’s questions, such as when the reporter says that he is “recognized as an online travel expert,” and at another point when he says that he is an attorney, and that he also “keeps a Web stock model portfolio for BW that beats the IIX pretty consistently.” Mr. Byrne posted the questions in full as well as a version with his comments interspersed — before the article ran in the magazine. According to the Overstock CEO, the reporter phoned his office and yelled at a receptionist.

As a journalist with feet (or arms) in both the world of traditional media and the world of blogs, I’m well acquainted with the reputation that journalists have — and this exchange doesn’t do anything to help that. It’s ironic that a man who has been described by Mr. Cuban as “a paranoid fool” actually comes off looking better than a reporter from a respected newsmagazine.

Ironically, the approach Mr. Byrne took by posting the email and his comments has been used before by his nemesis Mr. Cuban. These examples are a warning to journalists everywhere — you no longer have the high ground (if you ever did), so you had better tread carefully, or your flaws will be exposed for all to see.

for more on this topic, please see my full column at globeandmail.com.

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