Can We Trust CNET Again After a Scandal This Shady?

Can We Trust CNET Again After a Scandal This Shady?

CNET, one of the Internet's first and most influential authorities on gadgets and tech news, watched its editorial integrity spiral out of control Monday, with staffers quitting and editors left to explain themselves in the wake of explosive new charges over its annual Consumer Electronics Show awards — a scandal, it would appear, that goes all the way to the top of its corporate umbrella, and could shake the entire ecosystem of online tech journalism.

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Contrary to an already controversial move first reported last Friday, CNET parent company CBS didn't just asked the site to remove Dish's Slingbox Hopper from consideration for its Best of CES Awards amidst a lawsuit between CBS and Dish; the removal came after executives learned the gadget would take the top award, and that request came down from CBS CEO Leslie Moonves himself, sources tell The Verge's Joshua Topolsky. Now, CNET's corporate responsibilities appear to have made the long trusted site bend at will and, despite desperate pushback from some of its writers and editors, it appears CNET may have moved to cover up the series of events that led to the removal of the award.

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For CNET, all of this looks very bad. How can readers trust the site for its famously unbiased reviews and industry news coverage if a media-conglomerate overlord is insisting that some things just "can't exist"? The events that have unfolded since the scandal broke wide open haven't exactly restored anyone's faith. Greg Sandoval, a seven-year veteran of the site, announced his resignation Monday morning on Twitter, citing a lack of "editorial independence" from CBS as his motivation. In a separate tweet, he called CNET's dishonesty about its parent company's involvement with Dish "unacceptable." Since, both CNET and CBS have released not-too-convincing statements. 

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Following the Verge report and Sandoval's resignation, CNET Editor in Chief Lindsay Turrentine explained how CNET editors did everything in their power to fend off corporate insistence on its editorial decisions, but found the power of a pending deal between two bigger media companies too intimidating. So the editors gave in, and waited. "We were in an impossible situation as journalists," Turrentine wrote, adding that she thought about resigning. "I decided that the best thing for my team was to get through the day as best we could and to fight the fight from the other side." 

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Speaking for many a media and tech pundit, Reuters's Megan McCarthy questioned the front side of the internal debate: 

CNET’s editor-in-chief’s explains why she caved to CBS. Why didn’t she just refuse to award the Best in Show? :…

— Megan McCarthy (@Megan) January 14, 2013

For her part, Turrentine seems to have one major regret: "I wish I could have overridden the decision not to reveal that Dish had won the vote in the trailer." That doesn't exactly scream editorial independence, as The Verge's Sean Hollister pointed out on Twitter.

CNET doesn't get it either. "I wish I could have overridden the decision not to reveal" is NOT editorial independence.

— Sean Hollister (@StarFire2258) January 14, 2013

Turrentinge went on to say that if she had to face this "dilemma" again, she would not quit. Meaning, if this turns into more than a one-time incident, she wouldn't have a problem bending to CBS again? 

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CBS's statement to The Verge hasn't calmed the critics, either. "In terms of covering actual news, CNET maintains 100% editorial independence, and always will. We look forward to the site building on its reputation of good journalism in the years to come," reads the CBS reply. But when you're dealing with angry tech readers, their nerdfest of the year, and the corporate responsibilities  therein, 100 percent of trust is tough to build back.

While CNET struggles to emerge from this mess, the situation appears to be threatening the entire ecosystem of the technology press, which has a history of reinventing its standards on bias in product reviews. A number of gadget and tech-news sites fall under larger corporate umbrellas: AOL owns Engadget; NewsCorp owns The Wall Street Journal and its influential tech coverage; BuzzFeed FWD has to answer to its investors, who put money in all sorts of tech ventures; IAC invests in companies like Aereo but owns The Daily Beast. Turns out this wasn't just a family feud — the CNET and CBS scandal at CES could set a precedent for years to come.