CBS's Disturbing Censorship Of CNET Could Have Broader Impact

by , Jan 11, 2013, 2:25 PM
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It’s hard to view the move any other way than as a piercing insult to CNET journalists and readers and a very troubling action by CBS Corp. To look at what’s known, it appears as if CBS has engaged in censoring its respected tech news site in order to advance its own business interests.

The tactic looks to be a clear violation of the long-appreciated separation between editorial and business operations in the journalism field and sets a dangerous precedent for other properties such as CBS News. Some might now question CNET’s credibility. Less serious, the decision is petty and pouty.   

Give CBS this, though. It hasn’t disputed that it suppressed CNET. So far, it’s pretty much offered up a no-spin zone. No denials.

What’s known is Dish’s new version of its Hopper DVR, which allows for the transfer of recorded shows to iPads, received glowing praise from CNET in a Jan. 7 review. There, an editor wrote: “It's pretty cutting-edge stuff and helps Dish make a strong case that its HD DVR is the most advanced out there.” Still, the piece mentioned some possible negatives including with iPad capacity.

The new Hopper was nominated by CNET to win a “Best of CES” honor this week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. But later, it was eliminated from consideration.

On its site, CNET said the banishment was due to the litigation CBS is engaged in versus Dish. CBS and fellow networks believe the the Hopper feature, which records some prime-time shows and automatically eliminates all commercials, marks copyright infringement. CBS CEO Leslie Moonves has been a vocal opponent outside court.

Further, CNET said going forward it won’t review products where the manufacturer and CBS are facing off in court over that product.

That might be a good thing for Aereo -- the service that streams local broadcast stations to mobile devices – even though it could use publicity. CNET won’t be able to further review it since CBS is also suing Aereo for copyright infringement. So far, a CNET journalist has written at least two reviews, giving Aereo less-than-glowing takes.

Behind closed doors, Dish was likely thrilled to learn that CBS had moved to eliminate the new Hopper from award consideration, It was a chance to advance the image it covets as the scrappy challenger to Big Media (even though it’s part of it) and fierce advocate for the consumer. The glee was palpable in a statement it released from CEO Joe Clayton, who said the company was “saddened that CNET’s staff is being denied its editorial independence because of CBS’ heavy-handed tactics.”

The press jumps on stories about Big Media and censorship and Dish is getting a lot more notice for Hopper than it would have had it won a “Best of CES” award. That's not exactly an Oscar and how many people pay attention to it? They might confuse it with the mockumentary "Best in Show."

By the same token, why would CBS risk generating coverage that says this: Dish’s Hopper one-ups the traditional DVR. Forget fast-forwarding through commercials, it can just knock all of them out with minimal effort.

But there are far more grave matters in questioning why CBS would be so short-sighted as to interfere in CNET journalism.  

Standard practice when a company has a seminal relationship to a story covered by one of its news arms is to simply inform the reader and let them make their own judgments. Just like what CNET did in a March 12 review of Aereo: “Disclosure: CBS, parent company of CNET, is one of the broadcasters currently in litigation with Aereo over the service.”

That’s all CBS should ask of CNET with regards to the Hopper, Aereo or any other disruptive technology it sues to stop. Otherwise, it appears as if it is using one of its news properties to advance an agenda. That’s an affront to everybody outside the CBS business operations.

It’s demoralizing to CNET staff members, who may question how much their company prizes fairness in journalism – maybe their ability to be unbiased in general. It could also hurt credibility with readers, where earning their trust is fundamental.

The Hopper and Aereo are two of the more talked about products in the TV business. Readers come to CNET for opinions about would-be pioneering contraptions. What are they to think if the site drops out with two of the more notable ones as they evolve?

And, what about CBS News, home of the esteemed “60 Minutes” and other shows? It would be hard for CBS to implement a policy at one of its news arms and not transfer it to another division.

Does it mean there can be no "60 Minutes" profiles on the mysterious Dish founder Charlie Ergen or remarkable Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia for fear Morley Safer might drop in some plaudits for their controversial products? “Face the Nation’s” Bob Schieffer can offer some opinions. Should he be prevented from interviewing a newsmaker who is suing CBS for libel for fear he might slide in some commentary CBS believes hurts it?

CBS should reverse course with the CNET imbroglio. Then, focus on winning its battles in court, where it can eliminate products it feels cheat them. That might give it a win-win.

(A TVBlog on Jan. 8 should have noted that “sponsored tweets” don’t remain at the top of a Twitter feed, but run within them. Twitter collects no money as those who own the accounts sell them. Twitter does get compensated for a “promoted tweet,” which can remain at the top of a feed.)

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