The story got new life on Monday when one of CNet’s veteran reporters quit over the episode, making his contempt for CBS and CNet clear. “I no longer have confidence that CBS is committed to editorial independence,” tweeted senior writer Greg Sandoval in a parting shot. He added later, “CNet wasn’t honest about what occurred,” referring to the site’s initial characterization of what happened. “We are supposed to be truth tellers.”
The episode has prompted a flood of online criticism not just of CBS but of CNet, one of the most heavily visited technology sites on the Internet and, until last week, one of the most respected and credible. Technology users turn to it for news about new products and for its unvarnished takes on everything from cell phones to car-navigation devices. CBS bought the San Francisco-based company for $1.8 billion in 2008.
The tech site was all set to announce its annual best-in-show award winner during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week when CBS put up the stop sign, according to CNet editor Lindsey Turrentine. The device, which CNet’s review staff had elected for the award is the Dish Hopper. It’s a DVR with a feature, called the Auto Hop, that automatically skips ads in recorded network programs.
The Hopper is a bete noir for CBS, and for its network brethren, NBC, ABC and Fox. The Big Four broadcast networks last year sued its owner, satellite broadcaster Dish Networks, hoping to prevent it from rolling out the Auto Hop. The networks claim the feature illegally interferes with their broadcasts. More generally, the device — which Dish says is now connected to about 2 million TVs — could deal another major blow to the networks’ basic business model.
Citing its ongoing litigation with Dish, CBS ordered CNet to strike the Hopper from its list of potential award winners. Neither CBS nor CNet revealed at the time what Turrentine confirmed on Monday: That CNet’s editors had already voted to give the Hopper the top award.
Turrentine apologized to CNet’s readers and said she thought about quitting in a column posted on the site late Monday.
“We were in an impossible situation as journalists,” she wrote. “The conflict of interest was real — a legal case can impact the bottom line of our company and introduce the possibility of bias — but the circumstances demanded more transparency and not hurried policy.”
She also wrote, “I wish I could have overridden the decision not to reveal that Dish had won the vote. For that I apologize to my staff and to CNet readers.”