This morning, The Verge published a damning report on an apparent conflict of interest in CNET’s “Best of CES” awards.
The post claimed that CNET’s editorial staff, which votes on the award, crowned Dish Network’s Hopper set-top box device the winner. But before the staff could reveal its decision, CBS–CNET’s parent company–interceded because of litigation filed by CBS and other networks over the Hopper’s ability to skip past commercials.
“Before the winner was unveiled, CBS Interactive News senior-vice president and General Manager Mark Larkin informed CNET’s staff that the Hopper could not take the top award. The Hopper would have to be removed from consideration, and the editorial team had to re-vote and pick a new winner from the remaining choices. Sources say that Larkin was distraught while delivering the news — at one point in tears — as he told the team that he had fought CBS executives who had made the decision.”
“The Dish Hopper with Sling was removed from consideration due to active litigation involving our parent company CBS Corp. We will no longer be reviewing products manufactured by companies with which we are in litigation with respect to such product.”
The Verge says both Mr. Larkin and reviews lead Lindsey Turrentine ”fought for full disclosure, but were rebuffed by CBS.”
Not long after The Verge’s report, Greg Sandoval, a veteran reporter who has worked at CNET since 2005 announced his resignation on Twitter under the handle @SandoCNET over concerns about “editorial independence.”
He appears to be the first staffer to voice his misgivings about the actions of CNET’s corporate parent. Judging by the last big dustup over conflicts of interest in tech reporting, we don’t imagine he’ll be the last. But like Buzzfeed said, this is pretty much every tech reporter’s worst nightmare.
We’ve reached out to Mr. Sandoval for comment and will update the post when we hear back.
UPDATE: Both CBS and CNET editor-in-chief Lindsey Turrentine have responded to the controversy. CBS released a statement calling its interference in the CES awards “an isolated and unique incident in which a product that has been challenged as illegal.”
“The product in question is not only the subject of a lawsuit between Dish and CBS, but between Dish and nearly every other major media company as well. CBS has been consistent on this situation from the beginning, and, in terms of covering actual news, CNET maintains 100% editorial independence, and always will.”
Of course, as CNET’s competitors have pointed out, according to their previous disclaimer, this means that CBS views product reviews as something other than “actual news.”
So, according to CBS, product reviews aren’t journalism. Good to know!
— matt buchanan (@mattbuchanan) January 14, 2013
Like TechCrunch before it, however, CNET has covered the meta story in its webpages. Editor-in-chief Lindsey Turrentine confirmed that her editorial team had indeed selected Dish Hopper as the winner. She also called CBS’ conflict of interest “real” because “a legal case can impact the bottom line of our company and introduce the possibility of bias,” but expressed remorse about the lack of transparency in the process:
“If I had to face this dilemma again, I would not quit. I stand by my team and the years of work they have put into making CNET what it is. But I wish I could have overridden the decision not to reveal that Dish had won the vote in the trailer. For that I apologize to my staff and to CNET readers.”