Congratulations, CBS. You have earned yourself a place in the curriculum of journalism classes for the next couple of decades. And not in a good way. CBS will be studied for as blatant a violation of journalism ethics as you can imagine.
Of course, ethics can be an ethereal, subjective topic. Let's talk something more concrete -- money. The company over the course of a couple of days also managed to trash sizable part of a $1.8 billion investment. All in all, not a bad weekend's work, CBS. The question now is: how do you dig yourself out of a big hole, assuming you even want to?
Last week in Las Vegas, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) hosted its annual Consumer Electronics Show. The mammoth convention center is chock full of all sorts of gadgets and gear from tiny headsets to giant TVs. As part of the program, the tech news site CNET picks a "best in show" product.
CBS in 2008 paid $1.8 billion for CNET, a group of Web sites best known and largely respected for product reviews and coverage of tech issues. At the time, Les Moonves, the CBS chief executive officer then and now, said the purchase would give the network a "tremendous platform" for extending its content to a larger global audience.
Now fast-forward (an ironic term given the story we're about to tell) to last weekend's CES. The CNET team has picked a winner, the new version of the Hopper DVR made by Dish, the satellite TV company. The device not only allows recording of multiple programs, but also allows viewers to skip over commercials. What got the CNET crew all excited was that Dish had combined its Hopper with Sling, the TV program-shifting technology, so that customers could watch recorded materials on their iPads without an Internet connection. Of course, there were limits to the number of transfers of shows to iPads to satisfy the big media companies. Good idea. It didn't work out that way.
CBS Breaches The Wall
Then the CBS brass committed an outrageous violation of journalism behavior. Moonves ordered CNET staff, who had already voted on the Hopper, not only to take away the award but to take the device out of consideration altogether. There were some confusing statements and conflicting explanations about who did what, when, but the final time line was pretty clear. CBS, along with the other networks, is suing Dish over the Hopper's commercial-skipping features. Greg Sandoval, a veteran CNET reporter, quit, saying he is not confident CBS is "committed to editorial independence"for CNET.
Lindsey Turrentine, CNET's editor in charge of CNET reviews, published a post telling how the CNET staff was overwhelmed by the CBS brass in their ultimately futile fight at least to get some transparency, even as they were forced to cave in.
With the notable exception of the News Corp./Fox,empire, much of the criticism of big media companies these days comes from what they don't cover. For example, NBC has been criticized for not covering its former parent, General Electric. ABC has been criticized for leaving its parent Disney out of critical stories. The public interest group Free Press has been crusading for years about the dangers to journalism of bigger and bigger media conglomerates. The Federal Communications Commission has responded by proposing to allow more consolidation -- under a Democratic chairman, no less.
The current case shows where the journalism mind set differs from the corporate. No doubt the suits in New York were upset that the West Coast techies either didn't know, or didn't care, that CBS was in a lawsuit against Dish and the Hopper.
The CNET crew was doing its job -- evaluating products. It is, generally, good as its job.
CBS As Target
But thanks to Moonves' interference, both CBS brand and the CNET brand have been tarnished. Now any time there is an objection to what CBS News covers, or doesn't cover, people will simply point to the CNET example as how top-down corporate policy trumps news.
And CNET? Imagine the morale there. What will people believe about their coverage and product reviews now? That the San Francisco wing can be bullied at will? That there is no independence? It's a tough spot that the CNET crew should not have to deal with. The corporate adults should have acted more responsibly.
When considering how to respond to the CNET award, CBS had a couple of options. It could a) do what it did, shutting down CNET; b) do nothing or c) acknowledge the situation and deal with it. It chose the worst possible option.
At this point CBS should make a strategic retreat. The statement the network put out, saying it had "the highest regard" for the CNET staff, and that this was an "isolated and unique incident" fixed nothing. In fact, it made thing worse as people will wonder why, if there is the "highest regard," the brass interfered in the first place, and what will happen the next time another incident that may or may not be unique comes along.
If CBS wants to try to remedy its corporate reputation, its news division's reputation and CNET's reputation, it should admit its mistake and reinstate the award to Dish. At the same time, CBS could say that while the company respects the technical expertise involved in the Dish product as recognized by the CNET team, it strongly disagrees with the commercial-skipping properties and will continue the lawsuit.
Failing to do something like that will give CBS yet another black mark in journalism schools for years to come as a classic case of corporate running roughshod over reporters and hurting everyone. CBS News has a complex heritage. It likes to think of itself as a broadcast news pioneer, going back to World War II and Edward R. Murrow. At the same time, it's worth remembering all the internal harassment Murrow had to put up with until he was driven out of the company. Now is the time for the company to decide by which part of its heritage it wants to be known.