If you thought the long trusted tech-review site CNET's ethical dilemma with its parent company was a one-time scandal, well, it's set an unfortunate precedent: Even after a contentious fight this week to turn it around, CBS is still enforcing a made-up rule making CNET tip-toe around lawsuits and products that the media giant sees as a threat. All of this is still happening under the banner of both reviews and news, all with petty disclosures and lame coverage, and it's all bringing down CNET as we know it.
Remember, following the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month, when CBS wouldn't let CNET give an award to the Dish Slingbox that everyone loves because of a conflict of interest? And remember how it turned out that it all stemmed from CBS chief Les Moonves, and that it was threatening the credibility of the site? Well, from now on CNET has to abide by the policy banning reviews involved in CBS litigation — despite "an all-hands meeting" that was supposed to turn it around, and despite the new reality that it's applying to news and reviews.
The effects of the extremely controversial policy are on full display in this post from Thursday night about an update to Aero, the Barry Diller-owner broadcast television streaming service that has networks scared. The policy seems to have turned writer John P. Falcone's article ino the tale of CBS's lawsuit with the cord-cutting company, rather than news that Aereo now has a partnership with Roku. It's not very useful for readers — at least not given the gadget-news reputation CNET has long held — and it's no wonder that "people are pissed off,' as sources inside CNET tell Jim Romenesko.
Because of the disputed rule, and CBS's "active litigation" with Aero, Falcone and CNET had to insert this disclosure pretty high up in Thursday's post:
Note that older posts about Aereo — including this review and this one, both linked to throughout the new CNET post and both penned after CBS, among other media giants, sued Diller — do not have the discloser. Beyond the disruption, though, CNET devotes an entire paragraph to the suit:
Aereo has raised the hackles of the broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC, Fox, and CBS are all suing the startup -- because it streams their signals without permission. (CNET is a subsidiary of CBS -- see the full disclosure above regarding our updated coverage rules.) Aereo also doesn't pay the per-subscriber retransmission fees that mainstream cable and satellite providers do. Those fees are increasingly important to the broadcasters' profit margins.
In theory, the CBS lawsuit rule only applies to reviews. The new Aero post doesn't look like it falls under that category. CNET chose to put it under its "News" tab rather than "Reviews":
One of Romenesko's sources clarifies the shift in policy from reviews to reviews and news — even after the entire policy looked like it would be reveresed:
“At first it sounded like it was a policy that just applied to reviews,” says someone who attended the meeting. “But it seems pretty clear that there’s going to be spillover into news.”
It's a new standard that may not seem like a big deal to readers, but it's a pain at CNET, as The Verge's Tim Carmody notes:
They have to prove that what remains of their editorial independence is full and robust. They have to cover news controversies involving their publication and its parent company; these controversies necessarily involve some evaluation of the value of products and competing legal claims. And they have to do it without further antagonizing or embarrassing CBS.
And it's leading to major turmoil inside the long beloved CNET, as Romenesko goes on:
I was told that “there was a great deal of expressed unhappiness” at the meeting, and it’s only continued on CNET forums.
“There’s a lot of chatter about how [CBS Interactive] management isn’t standing up for us. Morale is plummeting. People are pissed off.” (I invited CBS Interactive to comment on Wednesday’s meeting. “Thank you for your interest,” wrote spokeswoman Jenifer Boscacci. “At this time, we have no comment.”)