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CBS, CNET And How To Kill Tech Journalism Through Big-Media Denial

· January 15, 2013

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If CBS isn’t already wishing it could hit the rewind button on its attempt to deny publicity to DISH Network’s video recorder, the company will be grasping for the remote soon enough.

The festivities began last week, when editors at CBS’s tech-news site CNET had voted to give DISH’s updated Hopper DVR–which can automatically skip ads in recorded prime-time network fare–its “Best of CES” award. CBS is not so fond of that feature, having already sued DISH over it, and forced CNET to give the award to somebody else.

That’s gone over about as well as you’d expect. CNET writer Greg Sandoval tweeted his resignation on principle (“I no longer have confidence that CBS is committed to editorial independence”), and editor Lindsey Turrentine wrote that CBS executives banned the site from saying what had just happened.

Daniel O’Connor unpacked the foundations of this foolishness yesterday, and a legal analysis by Matt Schruers is forthcoming [EDIT: Matt’s post is now up]. Here, I’m going to tee off on two toxic defenses CBS has offered for its conduct, just in case any other media conglomerate wants to follow its example.

(Disclosure: DISH Network is a member of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which hosts this blog.)

First, CBS-speaking-through-CNET declared a new policy, written in legalese that could never have escaped a journalist’s keyboard: “We will no longer be reviewing products manufactured by companies with which we are in litigation with respect to such product.”

If the first rule of story assignment is to check for litigation involving a parent firm, story budgets will shrink quickly–media conglomerates sue tech companies all the time over one perceived intellectual-property violation or another. Such a policy would have stopped many news organizations from reviewing the pioneering Diamond Rio MP3 player, the ad-skipping ReplayTV DVR, the RealDVD disc-copying tool, the Aereo TV service and a video site you may have heard of called YouTube.

Second, CBS suggested that this new rule would not stomp on journalistic ethics because “in terms of covering actual news, CNET maintains 100% editorial independence.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. To say that there’s “actual news” and then reviews devoid of news value shows a basic misunderstanding of how journalism works.

Hard-news stories (like search-engine results!) are never entirely objective; people made value judgments in assigning them, choosing sources to quote, and giving those pieces their spot on the page or in the paper. Reviews are never entirely subjective and ought to cite objective defects such as slow performance, poor battery life, privacy risks or missing features.

And in the evolving and sometimes fumbling tech industry, assessing the hardware, software and services it serves up is an especially important part of the work of journalism. We need to suffer through these products ourselves–unless you’d prefer that we waited to see you find their problems, then reported the controversy.

Readers, in turn, don’t view news and reviews as distinct entities. If they start seeing one part of a site’s work subject to a corporate overlord’s remote control, they will read everything there skeptically. If they stick around at all.

Basically, CBS’s rationales would dismantle much of tech journalism as we know it. Fortunately, they’re now more likely to dent their own reputation–leaving my field with plenty of self-inflicted wounds to tend.

Competition

Some, if not all of society’s most useful innovations are the byproduct of competition. In fact, although it may sound counterintuitive, innovation often flourishes when an incumbent is threatened by a new entrant because the threat of losing users to the competition drives product improvement. The Internet and the products and companies it has enabled are no exception; companies need to constantly stay on their toes, as the next startup is ready to knock them down with a better product.

Intellectual Property

The Internet enables the free exchange of ideas and content that, in turn, promote creativity, commerce, and innovation. However, a balanced approach to copyright, trademarks, and patents is critical to this creative and entrepreneurial spirit the Internet has fostered. Consequently, it is our belief that the intellectual property system should encourage innovation, while not impeding new business models and open-source developments.