Why CBS Should Keep Its Business Out Of CNET’s Business

I find it hard to believe that anyone from the CBS Corporation would try to dictate what CBS News could and couldn’t cover because of CBS business issues. Trying to interfere with broadcast news like that is fodder for movies and TV shows like “Broadcast News” and “The Newsroom.”

It’s no more acceptable to think CBS would interfere with the editorial processes of its other news operations. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what it has done to CNET recently.

I’m not trying to fan the flames further than they already burned last Friday and again on Monday. I don’t feel like I need to give up my freelance column on the site, and I sure don’t feel like CNET employees need to start resigning in mass protest. But I do have some things to say that I’d hope might somehow make it up the chain to CBS Corporation, where upon reflection, maybe it might better understand what a serious mistake it made last week.

CBS Making CNET Pay A Debt

Last week, CNET’s editorial staff voted to award a Best Of CES prize to the Dish Hopper with Sling. Then CBS demanded that CNET deny Dish that award because of a lawsuit between CBS and Dish over the Hopper’s TV commercial skipping feature, CNET’s editor in chief, Lindsey Turrentine, explained earlier this week.

The cost so far? At first, it was a story that mostly made waves within the tech press last week. Then the cost grew. CNET reporter Greg Sandoval resigned this week, saying on Twitter that he no longer had “confidence that CBS is committed to editorial independence.”

Suddenly, CBS putting CNET in the middle of its fight with Dish was turned into a broader discussion of news ethics in general, with CNET’s entire editorial integrity being called into question. That’s a pretty expensive price CNET had to pay on behalf of its corporate owner. But the costs aren’t over yet.

CBS seems to be trying to minimize the damage saying that CNET continues to have “100% editorial independence” in reporting “actual news” but that reviews of products that CBS is in active litigation over are now verboten.

Rather than reassure, I feel that statement leads to continuing costs that will mount for CNET: a chilling effect among CNET staffers about what they can and can’t write about, plus concerns among CNET readers about what CNET can and can’t report about.

The Chilling Effect

I can’t confirm if there’s a chilling effect with CNET staffers or not. I’m not a CNET employee. I’m not involved in “water cooler” discussions that employees of a company typically have. I’m not on any staff mailing lists, editorial discussions or anything like that. Indeed, all I know about what I potentially can or can’t write about on CNET as a freelance columnist comes from what I’ve read along with everyone else on the CNET site itself.

But I imagine there has to be a chilling effect. When you read in your own publication that your senior management was unable to reverse something it clearly disagreed with, when you read elsewhere that it was distraught over the decision, when some know first-hand what transpired, which reporter wants to be the first to potentially upset the higher-ups at CBS Corporate? Who wants to be that target and write anything about Dish, even if “news” stories are still supposedly perfectly acceptable?

Reader Doubts

As for CNET readers, one thing I’ve learned after nearly a year now of writing there is that everyone knows that CNET is biased in favor of Apple. Or Android. Or Microsoft. Just write anything that’s even remotely critical of Apple, Android or Microsoft, and the fanboys turn out to declare this is part of the secret uber-plan that CNET has.

The charges are absurd. I’ve responded to any number of comments like this, saying that I was sorry to disappoint, but I never received the secret CNET handbook demanding that all things be written to favor or attack a particular company.

Now, in the wake of Dish-gate, those type of charges no longer feel so absurd. Once a publication gets known for compromising for a particular reason in one instance, it becomes easy to believe it’s compromising in other ones.

Some Questions For CBS To Consider

All this concern caused, and for what? Because the CBS higher-ups just can’t stand a product they believe to be illegally violating copyright gets reviewed at CNET? If so, what next? What if CBS feels that filing over 300,000 copyright infringement removal requests with Google isn’t enough and decides to file a lawsuit against Google? Will CNET be allowed to report on the news of that filing but not write reviews of any Google products?

Maybe the issue is that CBS doesn’t support copyright infringement, so it doesn’t want reviews of products that assist in piracy. I could get behind that, sure. But if so, then shouldn’t it be for all products, not just those that CBS has a particular beef with? And shouldn’t it be for products that are actually proven in some way to be infringing, rather than just having accusations against them?

Maybe the issue is, as unnamed CBS Interactive sources apparently told The Verge, that CBS fears a CNET review of the Dish Hopper might somehow get used against it in court. If so, it’s not like CNET has pulled its current editor’s take, which by the way, didn’t even mention the “auto hop” feature. Clearly that’s not what was making it the contender for Best Of CES. Maybe not allowing future reviews possibly might help? But maybe a court might also understand that CBS Corporate’s views aren’t represented by CNET.

Then again, as the Hollywood Reporter notes (see also here), CBS has already had an initial minor loss in a legal battle over copyright, based on claims that CBS Interactive and CNET perhaps encouraged copyright theft. Given this, there’s some understanding that CBS might be skittish. But if so, taking action not to review one particular product CBS is litigating against doesn’t remove all the other possible things written on CNET about similar products or issues that might potentially get used against it.

Is CNET Worth More Than The TV Ads We Already Skip?

Back to the cost question: is all that’s being harmed for CNET really worth it for CBS?

Consider the deep irony of the Wall Street Journal reporting on the uproar. CBS — through its own actions — looks bad in the pages of a publication owned by News Corp., the same company that owns Fox, which CBS competes with. Fox is also suing Dish, but since its News Corp.-owner hasn’t made any similar moves to block Dish reviews on News Corp. publications, neither Fox nor News Corp. come off looking bad like CBS does. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

All this because CBS thinks that it’s so much of a threat to its business model that TV viewers might entirely skip commercials rather than fast-forwarding through them on their DVRs? Because so many of us who fast-forward often think “Wait! I need to stop to see that particular ad!”?

At a time when so much viewing is moving onto the Web and mobile devices, where it’s hard to nearly impossible to skip ads at all, this seems like a dumb fight to be having. It seems like a dumber fight to be hurting what CBS’ future really should be — properties like CNET — than to protect broadcast ads that largely died years ago but simply don’t know it yet.

Exercise The Right Control, CBS

As CNET’s publisher, CBS does have to exercise some control. A publisher doesn’t want its publication involved in libel, false reporting or any number of generally considered bad reporting practices. In these regards, CBS does want to be in CNET’s business.

But where CBS most definitely doesn’t want to be in CNET’s business is when it’s trying to interfere to help CBS’s own business. That opens the gates to CNET simply being a propaganda organ for CBS. Whether CNET actually acts that way or not becomes beside the point. Some believe it. Trust is lost.

My column is at CNET is called Common Sense Tech, and it’s just common sense that the type of thing CBS did to CNET should have never happened. I’d like to see CBS back off and let CNET get back to the business it does very well, reporting on and reviewing technology, as it long has.