Before an all-hands meeting with CBS corporate on Wednesday, CNET staffers reportedly believed that their parent company might reverse its policy banning reviews of the Hopper DVR and Aereo. Instead, as Jim Romenesko reports, CBS was adamant. Not only could CNET's reviews team not cover the Hopper DVR, reporters apparently could not write positively of the product at all.
This account appeared in media journalist Jim Romenesko's blog, supported by interviews of multiple CNET staffers. It suggests that CNET and its parent company are still at odds over what constitutes editorial interference. Problems that seem minor to CBS are major for CNET. It offers no resolution of the problematic distinction between news and reviews that CBS is trying to introduce following its controversial awards ban of Dish's Hopper DVR at CES. It also makes what readers can expect from CNET's coverage of Dish and Aereo still something of an open question.
In principle, CBS's policy prevents CNET's journalists from reviewing products which are part of active litigation with its parent company. CBS had no previous history of interfering in CNET's editorial decisions. What's more, this rule is unusually problematic. It purportedly allows the news team to report on whatever it wishes. The reviews team, however, is barred from writing about products directly implicated in litigation with CBS.
"Morale is plummeting. People are pissed off."
However, the CNET team objected, the line between news and reviews is murky. They found several examples where reporters would have to make decisions that couldn't be easily resolved. What could a news reporter say about the Hopper in a roundup of similar DVRs? CBS's answer was chilling: no CNET reporter could write positively about the Hopper.
Predictably, CBS's stonewalling at Wednesday's meeting did not go over well. "Morale is plummeting. People are pissed off," one CNET staffer told Romenesko. "It seems pretty clear that there's going to be spillover into news," another said. Instead of reversing course, CBS's policy seemed more constraining than ever.
CBS's tone-deafness wasn't limited to the town-hall meeting. In an email to an internal CNET group, CBS Interactive president John Lanzone said that "the policy is very limited in what it covers. I understand why it is not perfect, but we have accomplished so much and we can continue to do so." While the latter part of that statement is objectively true, the so-called "very limited" policy has the potential to become anything but.
"I'm not aware of other media companies that have enacted a similar policy."
For example, Lanzone asserted that CBS had bore the brunt of the damage from the controversy, and that CNET had been largely spared. CNET's editorial team felt less sure. CBS may have become the bigger bad guys, but CNET has been suffering relative to its peers. Replying to an email request from Romenesko, CNET writer Declan McCullagh sent a long and measured email — posted in full on Google+ — that demurs from commenting on internal conversations. What it does do, however, is list out several other publications whose parent companies are involved in active litigation whose writers are not similarly constrained by such policies. "It's true that CBS has the right to set the editorial policies that CNET journalists must abide by," McCullagh writes, "But I'm not aware of other media companies that have enacted a similar policy."
So far, CBS has overruled CNET's decision to award a best in show prize to Dish's Hopper DVR. CBS has forced the CNET team to lie about those events, to suggest that the Hopper was removed from consideration while it was still a finalist. CBS has instituted a policy banning reviews of the Hopper DVR and Aereo, without immediately making clear precisely which products and services would be affected. Finally, now it has fought to preclude any praise of the Hopper or Aereo in any CNET venue, news included. All of these decisions have been made over and against the objections of CNET's editors and staff.
In other words, CBS seems largely unaware of how any compromise of editorial independence, however subtle, damages a news brand. It certainly recognizes that potential for damage much less than CNET employees do. Every media company has firewalls between its news and business operations, to prevent conflicts between its editorial and advertising teams or between its news and its parent companies, to protect against precisely this. CBS, by tampering with that delicate machine, is sending sparks flying everywhere.
Tim Carmody contributed to this report.
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