CBS Puts CNET In an Ethically Questionable Spot at CES

The Atlantic
CBS Puts CNET In an Ethically Questionable Spot at CES
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CBS Puts CNET In an Ethically Questionable Spot at CES

CNET was put in an awkward situation Thursday when their parent company CBS forced them to pull one of their nominated "Best of CES" products because of an impending lawsuit. This is a story full of lawsuits, conflicts of interest, and journalism ethics. Are you excited yet? Good. 

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So, CNET nominates Dish Network's Hopper with Sling DVR for its Best of CES awards Wednesday evening. At some point in the 24 hours before CNET revealed the winners, their parent company CBS intervened saying CNET couldn't nominate a company involved in a lawsuit with CNET's parent company. CBS, along with many other major networks, are suing Dish for a DVR feature that lets viewers skip advertising during recordings. CNET falls under CBS Interactive, on one side of the company, while CBS Broadcasting, the other side, is involved in the Dish lawsuit. Either way, word came from on high to pull the Hopper from contention. 

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CNET was forced to add this note to their glowing CES review of Dish's Hopper DVR:

Editors' note: The Dish Hopper with Sling was removed from consideration for the Best of CES 2013 awards 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.

CNET defended the policy on Twitter because it only applies to products entangled in "active litigation." Dish CEO and President Joe Clayton didn't wast an opportunity to rake CBS over the coals while defending CNET's ability to praise his product, though: 

We are saddened that CNET’s staff is being denied its editorial independence because of CBS’ heavy-handed tactics. This action has nothing to do with the merits of our new product. Hopper with Sling is all about consumer choice and control over the TV experience. That CBS, which owns CNET.com, would censor that message is insulting to consumers.

This now becomes an ethical question. Shouldn't CNET be freely allowed to give out their awards based on the merit of a product as seen and judged through the clear eyes of their editorial board without interference from the higher ups? The short answer is "yes," while the longer answer is "welcome to real world, son."

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Buzzfeed's John Herrman argues CBS's meddling potentially devalues CNET as an authority on the best tech products. Which is strange since that's one of the site's two purposes: reviewing which products are the best. If one of CNET's functions is to tell people which tech products are the best on the market, then they must be able to do their jobs without being boxed in by the greater interests of their parent company. They look dishonest. 

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More than any other division of media, the line between the tech media and the tech world is almost invisibly thin. "This is a constant fear for many tech writers — their jobs, more than many other in media, require them to cover companies they either work for, or which their employers interact with," Buzzfeed's  Herrman writes. "Nearly every tech publication has conflicts of interest to wrestle with — including BuzzFeed, a startup which shares investors with many other tech and media companies." 

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Matthew Ingram thinks a much darker outcome might be on the horizon for CBS and CNET if they aren't careful -- a complete loss of reader confidence in news and reviews: 

Presumably, when someone goes to the CNET site looking for information about set-top boxes or video-streaming hardware, they want the most complete information they can find. If they know that certain products aren’t going to be reviewed because CBS doesn’t like them for some reason, that’s going to color their impressions of the site’s thoroughness in doing its reviews — and it might also make them wonder about what else is being left out.

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