01/15/2013 03:47 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

CBS Overrules Best-of-Product Choice by Its CNET Unit, Citing Litigation: A Case of Censorship?

Last week, about 40 members of the editorial staff met at the CES trade show in Las Vegas to select the website's official Best of CES product. They chose the Dish Hopper with Sling "because of innovative features that push shows recorded on DVR to iPads," according to a post by CNET Reviews editor-in-chief  Lindsey Turrentine. 

When CNET's parent company, CBS, learned of the choice, it ordered CNET to withdraw the Dish Hopper from consideration, according to Turrentine. She reprinted the CBS statement, which read, in part, "The Dish Hopper with Sling was removed from consideration due to active litigation involving our parent company CBS Corp."

Was this a case of censorship by CBS to protect its business interests? The Dish Hopper allows viewers to skip ads during prime-time network television broadcasts. CBS is suing Dish over the ad-skipping feature, claiming the device is illegal, according to  Brian Stelter at the Media Decoder   blog at  the New York Times. He reports that the decision to overrule CNET went all the way to the CBS chief executive, Leslie Moonves, who told CNET to choose a new winner.

CBS also told CNET that it couldn't reveal that the Hopper had been the original winner; that news, according to Stelter, was broken by The Verge. When the news broke, "further cries of censorship sprang up on the Internet," Stelter reports. Greg Sandoval, a senior writer at CNET and a former reporter for the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, resigned in the wake of the CBS decision.

CBS released a statement calling the situation "isolated and unique" and said, "In terms of covering actual news, CNET maintains 100 percent editorial independence and always will."

How, exactly, does "actual news" differ from product reviews, which are a staple at CNET? And why would reviews be singled out, unless CBS wants to make sure that it can stop any such situation from happening again?

Indeed, it's unlikely CBS will ever have to issue a cease-and-desist order to its own people again. In the wake of this episode, skittish employees who want to keep their jobs and their paychecks are going to say away from anything that might anger Moonves or CBS.

But what might that be? How can reporters and editors discern what Moonves wants, or forbids? We might now wonder whether we can trust CNET reviews.

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.