Are news and reviews subject to different ethical standards? That appears to be the message from CBS in response to Dish's controversial Hopper DVR. Official CBS policy now bans CNET from reviewing products implicated in lawsuits, but claims CNET still has complete editorial independence over "actual news."
On Monday, CBS issued a statement to the New York Times calling the ban on the Hopper "an isolated and unique incident in which a product that has been challenged as illegal." A spokesperson noted that not only CBS but other media companies had brought suit against Dish. "CBS has nothing but the highest regard for the editors and writers at CNET… and, in terms of covering actual news, CNET maintains 100% editorial independence, and always will." (Spokespeople for CBS, CBS Interactive, and CNET did not return requests to respond directly to The Verge for comment on this story.)
Meanwhile, CNET Reviews editor Lindsey Turrentine expressed regret that the publication did not clearly state that the Hopper with Sling had won the editors' vote for Best In Show. CBS Corporate insisted on using language that obfuscated that fact, after Turrentine and CNET editorial staff had already lost its fight to stand by the original vote. "I wish I could have overridden the decision not to reveal that Dish had won the vote in the trailer," writes Turrentine. "For that I apologize to my staff and to CNET readers."
"The least of [our disappointment] is the loss of the award."
"I'm looking for a word more descriptive than disappointment," said Bob Toevs, head of corporate communications at Dish, in a phone interview. "The least of it is the loss of the award. It's really everything to do with editorial independence and integrity, which we've valued from CNET in the past and cheer for its restoration in the future. It's terribly unfortunate they've been put in this position [by CBS], and it's completely avoidable."
Typically, Toevs says, journalistic outlets have handled conflicts regarding ongoing lawsuits with an asterisk and a simple disclosure. "It says, the conflict is out there, it's no secret. That's absolutely appropriate and fine. If you look at publications by News Corp. [also currently involved in a lawsuit with Dish Networks concerning the Hopper], that's how they handle it. And that kind of open disclosure enhances their credibility as a result."
CBS intervention is "terribly unfortunate" and "completely avoidable," says Dish
Last Wednesday, editors at CNET told representatives at Dish that Dish's Hopper with Sling would be a finalist for CNET's "Best of CES" award. On Thursday morning, about 25 minutes prior to its announcement of the winner, CNET told Dish that the Hopper with Sling had been withdrawn from consideration due to Dish's lawsuit with CNET's parent company CBS over the Hopper DVRs' commercial-skipping feature. CNET did not indicate to Dish, or to anyone else outside the company, that its editors had in fact already voted to name the Hopper with Sling Best in Show, nor that editors had been made to revote on a directive from CBS CEO Les Moonves. That conversation Thursday morning was the last communication between representatives at Dish and those at CNET, CBS Interactive, or CBS regarding ongoing reviews coverage of the Hopper or any current Dish products.
Are reviews journalism?
The distinction between news and reviews may be the thorniest part of CBS's response, apart from its interference with CNET's editorial team in the first place. CBS may say that the case of the Hopper is "isolated and unique," but has also said that CNET "will no longer be reviewing products manufactured by companies with which we are in litigation with respect to such product." So CNET's editorial staff is permitted to cover Timehop DVRs, Aereo's online TV service, or CBS' lawsuits with Dish and Aereo themselves as "news," but not allowed to evaluate those products and services for its readers as "reviews."
It's difficult to see how a distinction between full editorial independence for news and limited editorial independence for reviews can be maintained without eroding reader trust in the reviews. "It seems impractical," says Dish's Toevs. "I don't know how [CNET's editorial team] would like to live with that policy. And it raises the question of how much editorial oversight CBS is giving CNET on any given story."
Transparency is the beginning of trust, not trust itself
It's equally difficult to see how disclosures to readers alone can solve these ethical and professional dilemmas for news organizations. CNET admits erring in concealing the results of its CES awards vote, but disclosure alone is not sufficient to clear CBS of the charge of editorial interference. By CNET's own account, CBS' corporate division took the decision to give an award out of CNET's hands and dictated editorial content on CNET's site, in the form of the editor's note removing the Hopper from the list of award finalists. Since that note is now the offical policy of CBS and CNET, charges of editorial inference will not end here, even when CBS and other networks' lawsuits with Dish are resolved.
"We're dealing with a rapidly evolving landscape regarding how media and technology interact with each other," says Toevs. "Today this is about Dish and the merits (or not) of our product. Where will it be tomorrow?"