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.”
The episode raises another journalistic question: If CNet was really interested in editorial independence, why hand out awards to the companies it covers in the first place? Doesn’t doing so introduce the possibility of bias by blurring the line between a critical assessment and a flat-out stamp of approval?
What’s more, CNet’s best-of-show picks are the “official” award winners of the CES show under a licensing agreement with the show’s sponsor, the Consumer Electronics Association. News organizations typically avoid such relationships because they can taint independent coverage.
Turrentine said in an interview on Monday that giving awards is part of her site’s mission. “It’s our way of signalling to our readers what the best products are in each category,” she said.
She added that CNet had written positively about the Dish device before without any questions being raised by CBS.
The flap may offer an illustration of one of the perils of the age of corporate media conglomerates. With so many media properties under one roof, conflicts in one area can spill over into another, unrelated area, harming journalistic independence.
In a statement on Monday, a spokesman for CBS’s interactive division said, “CBS has nothing but the highest regard for the editors and writers at CNET . . . This has been an isolated and unique incident in which a product that has been challenged as illegal was removed from consideration for an award.” It said, “CNET maintains 100 percent editorial independence, and always will.”
Dish, the No. 2 satellite service behind DirecTv, has reaped a windfall of publicity from the Hopper controversy. It maintains that its product does nothing more than what viewers already do manually with a conventional DVR.
“From our point of view, people have been skipping commercials since the advent of remote controls and probably have been before that if you count the times they got up to re-fill the chip bowl,” said Bob Toevs, a spokesman.
He added, “CBS’s interference in this is disappointing. The issue isn’t who won what award. The bigger issue is journalistic independence and integrity.”