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.”
There had been hints around CNET that the edict might be overturned. During a meeting last Friday, Reviews editor-in-chief Lindsey Turrentine sounded optimistic. “The sense of her presentation,” says one staffer, “was that while there were still a few sticking points, overall the CBSi [CBS Interactive] team had made good progress making a strong business case to CBS corporate for overturning the policy. …Every indication was that the discussions were going well.”
“They proceeded to tell us it was no big deal,” says a CNET employee. “But people kept bringing up different hypotheticals” and it became clear that it was a big deal.
Someone asked if a writer doing a round-up of DVRs could write positively about Dish’s Hopper. No, the journalists were told by the two “visibly uncomfortable” execs.
“At first it sounded like it was a policy that just applied to reviews,” a staffer says of CBS corporate’s edict. “But it seems pretty clear that there’s going to be spillover into news.”
I was told that “there was a great deal of expressed unhappiness” at the meeting, and it’s only continued on CNET forums.
“There’s a lot of chatter about how [CBS Interactive] management isn’t standing up for us. Morale is plummeting. People are pissed off.” (I invited CBS Interactive to comment on Wednesday’s meeting. “Thank you for your interest,” wrote spokeswoman Jenifer Boscacci. “At this time, we have no comment.”)
On Thursday, there was another town-hall meeting – but not devoted solely to the CBS policy controversy. Just before that meeting, CBSi boss Lanzone posted the message below to a CNET listserv:
Hey guys. Getting ready for this meeting but will chime in later.
One thing to keep in mind is this all-hands is about the entirety of CBSi, which as you know is a big group with many different brands, so while I will address the question of what happened and what the policy is, this is not the forum for going in depth about this.
Briefly, to Josh’s point, want to remind that I did not say this thing did not affect the CNET brand. I said that CBS was the brand that took the blame for what happened. Not disputing there was an effect on the CNET brand as a result of what happened. Nor are we saying we will just blink our eyes and act like this never happened. Just said we can get through it. The policy is very limited in what it covers. I understand why it is not perfect, but we have accomplished so much and we can continue to do so.
Declan McCullagh is one of the CNET employees I contacted while working on this post. He declined to comment on Wednesday’s meeting (“I don’t feel it’s appropriate to discuss any internal deliberations”), but noted that “I’m not aware of other media companies that have similar policies.” McCullagh wrote in an email:
Take the lawsuits against Barry Diller’s Aereo video-streaming service. My CNET reviews colleague John Falcone published a news article yesterday about Aereo saying: “Disclosure: CBS, the parent corporation of CNET, is currently in active litigation with Aereo as to the legality of its service. As a result of that conflict of interest, CNET cannot review that service going forward.”
CBS, the Walt Disney Company, News Corp., Comcast, the Tribune Company, and other media companies filed copyright infringement lawsuits against Aereo in March 2012. The copyright claims are very similar to the ones at issue in the lawsuit against Dish; one of the complaints filed in the southern district of New York accuses Aereo of “willful copyright infringement” and says it “just helps itself” unlawfully to copyrighted content.
The Wall Street Journal’s Katie Boehret (who reviews products along with Walt Mossberg, as I’m sure you know) reviewed Aereo three months after the litigation began. Boehret concluded: “It has a thoughtful, clean user interface that works well on the iPad, where I tested it most.. If you’re a fan of TV and want a better way to watch it on the go, Aereo is a pleasure.” The WSJ is owned by News Corp., which is in active litigation with Aereo.
ABCNews.com published a review of Aereo this month. It said: “I’ve been trying out Aereo since September to record and watch all sorts of programs on Aereo — both highbrow shows such as ‘Downton Abbey’ and guilty-pleasure ones such as ‘Revenge…’ It makes cutting cable service tempting.” ABC News is owned by Walt Disney, which is in active litigation with Aereo.
The Chicago Tribune published a syndicated review of streaming services including Aereo, which said “the most exciting development might be a scrappy start-up called Aereo that lets you watch TV on any Web-connected device with a screen via a network of miniaturized antennas.” The newspaper is owned by the Tribune Company, which is in active litigation with Aereo.
It’s true that CBS has the right to set the editorial policies that CNET journalists must abide by. And it’s also true that this policy is prominently disclosed to our readers. But I’m not aware of other media companies that have enacted a similar policy.