Did CNET do right by DISH?

We don't often write about other news sites, but the drama unfolding at CNET today is simply too hard to ignore. Your opinion means something, and I ask for it. Or, keeping with Betteridge's law of headlines, you can answer "yes" or "no".

During last week's Consumer Electronics Show, CNET editors voted DISH Hopper with Sling best of show. But parent company CBS stepped in and nixed the choice, citing on-going litigation. Editors disqualified the device, but not indicating that it had actually won. Today, The Verge editor-in-chief Joshua Topolsky broke the story, and long-time CNET reporter Greg Sandoval resigned in protest. Since, CNET reviews editor-in-chief Lindsey Turrentine posted "CNET's story".

Burning Credibility

My immediate questions:

  • Did Sandoval make the right choice by resigning?
  • Should more CNETers, including Turrentine, have resigned in protest?
  • Did CBS overstep the boundaries that ensure CNET's editorial independence and, more importantly, integrity?
  • Should CNET editors have publicly disclosed what happened last week, rather than go by CBS corporate's taciturn statement?
  • Did CNET violate readers' trust by bowing down to the parent company's demands, thus raising questions about the credibility of all reviews?

You may have other or different questions. I'll answer mine, of course, but first some background. I worked for what was then called CNET News.com from 1999 to 2003 -- nearly four years to the day. I left not out of dissatisfaction but opportunity to do something different and to increase my salary by nearly 40 percent. When I worked there, news and reviews operated as separate departments and I can only vouch for the editorial integrity of the one.

In the early days, CNET chose to staff the news department with newspaper reporters. While in some ways fish out of water in the new medium, they also tended to understand the rules of reporting -- everything from scoops to news ethics. I told my BetaNews colleagues in group chat today: "The site has long maintained high-standards for reporting. There are, or were, few like it. ArsTechnica is another good example of integrity journalism...Even its ZDNET bloggers, who are independent contractors, are largely seasoned journalists". CBS News also has, or had perhaps, a reputation for integrity journalism, which is one reason I viewed CNET as a good fit when acquired nearly five years ago.

Bloody Drama

That Turrentine tells CNET's story in fairly neutral, news-like fashion is commendable. That she chose to do so after The Verge broke the news and Sandoval resigned is not. The decision to withhold anything reflects poorly on her credibility and CNET's.

Forty CNETers voted on the best of show winner, she explains, and that information was routinely passed up the corporate ladder. But there is a problem. CBS and DISH are engaged in a legal skirmish. "All night and through to morning, my managers up and down CNET and I fought for two things: To honor the original vote and, when it became clear that CBS Corporate did not accept that answer -- to issue a transparent statement regarding the original vote...Ultimately, we were told that we must use the official statement and that we must follow corporate policy to defer all press requests to corporate communications".

The statement is a travesty by several measures. First there is lack of disclosure that Hopper won, then the product's disqualification and further DISH banishment: "We will no longer be reviewing products manufactured by companies with which we are in litigation with respect to such product", according to the official statement. There is an implicit threat. If your company sues CBS for any reason, CNET won't review your product. Please, ponder the implications of that.

Turrentine acknowledges the obvious: "We were in an impossible situation as journalists. The conflict of interest was real -- a legal case can impact the bottom line of our company and introduce the possibility of bias -- but the circumstances demanded more transparency and not hurried policy".

Sandoval adds perspective in a series of tweets today, starting with his resignation: "Hello all. Sad to report that I've resigned from CNET. I no longer have confidence that CBS is committed to editorial independence". Neither do I.

The parent company's position doesn't make loads of sense to me. Counterpoint: Apple sues Samsung in multiple countries for patent or design infringement yet the companies continue to do business (granted, the American corporation is lessening the relationship, slowly). Samsung manufacturers Apple microprocessors, which means access to trade secrets. If there was ever a reason to cut and run, shouldn't that be it? After all, the fruit-logo company claims copying by the South Korean electronics giant. Now contrast that against a decision to prohibit product reviews by a subsidiary because of the parent company's legal problems with the device's manufacturer.

Matters of Trust

Sandoval's stance is sensible to me as a journalist: "CNET wasn't honest about what occurred regarding DISH is unacceptable to me. We are supposed to be truth tellers". He is absolutely right. Years ago, I posted to my personal blog about journalists' responsibility -- after watching the movie "Shattered Glass", which recounts a scandal at The New Republic, where a reporter fabricated stories. While what happened with CNET at CES is no way comparable in the larger scheme it is in the smallest, most-important way: Trust. A journalist's trust is inviolate and is preserved by a simple act: Writing what he or she knows to be true. Never lie.

In the post I advised other reporters:

  • A reporter must never cross the line to lies. Making up sources or quotes is an unforgivable wrong. If caught, career is over.
  • All quotes should be real and accurate. Embellishment is for fiction writers. Leading questions designed to get pat answers also is bad form.
  • Every story must be based on the reporting. The reporting should lead the story. No story should be decided beforehand.
  • Document all stories. Where legal, record phone calls. Archive emails and instant message exchanges. Reliable reporters have nothing to hide and so should keep meticulous notes, which can be extremely useful if there is a dispute with a source over a quote.

If you violate trust, you will eventually get found out. Why? Because your peers are journalists and it’s their jobs, their callings, to uncover the truth. Even if the truth is a bunch of lies.

Sandoval says that he isn't "disgruntled. CBS and CNET were great to me. I just want to be known as an honest reporter". He chose to put integrity, which also means his trustworthiness from readers, first.

Turrentine says: "If I had to face this dilemma again, I would not quit". She should have. Sandoval's resignation is news everywhere today alongside CBS' editorial interference. As head of the department, she should have set the example that Sandoval does.

You have my answer to the question -- and yours?

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