CBS’s CNET Fiasco

An egregious breach of editorial dependence damages its credibility

Last week, CNET picked Dish Network’s Hopper with Sling, a DVR that can skip ads even more efficiently than other DVRs and let’s you watch shows remotely, as the best doohickey of the CES tech show.

CNET has typically picked TVs as its winners in the last five years, something CBS presumably didn’t discourage.

But when CNET picked Dish’s DVR as the best gadget, its corporate overlords at CBS told it to cease and desist. Late last week, CNET added a note on its Hopper with Sling review that said this:

Editors’ note: The Dish Hopper with Sling, the original pick for Best Home Theater and Audio product and Best of Show, was removed from consideration due to active litigation involving our parent company, CBS Corp. We will no longer be reviewing products manufactured by companies with which we are in litigation with respect to such product.

On Monday, Greg Sandoval quit in protest and went public with his complaints about CBS, tweeting that “I no longer have confidence that CBS is committed to editorial independence” and that “CNET wasn’t honest about what occurred regarding Dish is unacceptable to me. We are supposed to be truth tellers.”

The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky reports that CEO Les Moonves himself was behind the ham-fisted move and that:

Sources inside CBS Interactive have said that CBS’ primary concern and justification for banning reviews of Timehop DVRs has been that CNET’s reviews could be used by Dish in court to embarrass CBS or possibly refute the company’s evidence in court.

It’s unclear why a review would complicate CBS’s court case, embarrass a $24 billion company, or assure the Dish product’s viability, particularly when past CNET picks include the Motorola Xoom, the Palm Pre, a $1,200 combination Blu-Ray/HD DVD player, and the Creative Zen Vision: M.

But this is why Moonves gets paid the big bucks, which totaled who paid himself $171 million from 2009 to 2011. And of course, this makes sense. Something as stupid as this, trampling over heated protests from lesser executives, could only come from the C-suite.

It’s a journalistic disaster, and CBS has seriously damaged the tech review and news site it bought for nearly $1.8 billion in 2008. How can you tell readers what the best gadgets are if you’re prevented from writing about them? How can readers trust your judgment when the corporate creeps fiddle with your newsroom? What else does CBS tell CNET to do that we don’t find out about?

We only know about this incident because CNET had already posted its review of the Hopper with Sling and nominated it for Best in Show when the CBS suits hit the roof. Just disappearing the post wouldn’t do, so CNET had to drop in that editor’s note. Here’s Editor Lindsey Turrentine, writing today about why she didn’t resign in protest:

All night and through to morning, my managers up and down CNET and I fought for two things: To honor the original vote and — when it became clear that CBS Corporate did not accept that answer — to issue a transparent statement regarding the original vote.

Ultimately, we were told that we must use the official statement and that we must follow corporate policy to defer all press requests to corporate communications.

If I had to face this dilemma again, I would not quit. I stand by my team and the years of work they have put into making CNET what it is. But I wish I could have overridden the decision not to reveal that Dish had won the vote in the trailer. For that I apologize to my staff and to CNET readers.

Turrentine is in an awful spot, but this is no way to reaffirm your editorial integrity. What happens next time CBS wants to meddle with CNET’s newsroom? Turrentine has already shown her cards.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,