Report: CNET news writers also told not to cover courtroom foes

Last week, CNET's tech writers were ordered not to praise a gadget made by a courtroom enemy of parent company CBS. Now, their news team has also been given its editorial marching orders. Tim Carmody at The Verge:

CNET and its staff have been put in an extraordinarily difficult position by CBS. They have to prove that what remains of their editorial independence is full and robust. They have to cover news controversies involving their publication and its parent company; these controversies necessarily involve some evaluation of the value of products and competing legal claims. And they have to do it without further antagonizing or embarrassing CBS.

Jim Romenesko writes that morale there is plummeting:
On Wednesday, CNET staffers in San Francisco went into an all-hands meeting hoping to hear that parent company CBS had reversed its policy banning CNET reviews of products that are part of active litigation — a policy that Columbia Journalism Review said “seriously damaged the tech review and news site.” ... CBS Interactive president Jim Lanzone and CBS Interactive general manager Eric Johnson announced the bad news at their meeting: There would not be a policy reversal.

The assumption seems to be that CNET's editorial culture is too weak to stand up for itself--that it's the sort of place where staff resign rather than get fired. But what if the air gap between CNET and its parent has simply exposed what is already normal inside CBS itself? There's a lot of schadenfreude going on around CNET's reputational immolation, but CBS is the salient entity--especially when it comes to how much power lawyers have over editorial operations.

CNET rescinds positive review because parent company is suing manufacturer

Tech site CNET was about to give Dish Network's latest set-top box a best-of-show editorial award, but rescinded the plaudits because its parent company, CBS, is suing the manufacturer. Mathew Ingram points out how this compromises CNET's journalistic credibility, and Buzzfeed's John Hermann says it exposes a profound difference in product journalism and actual journalism at the site.

While it looks like clueless corporate spite, I bet it's really about lawyers wanting to lower CBS's exposure to uncertainty in its boring lawsuit over contracts and copyright. The product review could end up influencing the court, and that alone is reason enough for it to come down.

The misery of litigation (including a plaintiff's perceived need to pursue it) blinds us to other risks, expecially for a business as frequently exposed to it the media. For some, it seems inconceivable not to accept legal advice after it's been sought—even when the negative consequences of taking it are profoundly obvious. And it's easy to imagine that lawyers get to micromanage a huge, change-averse company like CBS.

When it defends itself by saying that the litigation blackout "applies only to reviews, not news", though, CNET shows its colors badly. Gadget reviews might be the journalistic outhouse, but it's still bad form to burn it down when your own hacks are on the pot.