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David Zax

A View from David Zax

The Best of CES*

(*Censored!) Innovation loses when tech journalists are silenced.

  • January 15, 2013

I don’t mind saying that the website CNET, in some respects a Technology Review competitor, is generally excellent. I sometimes link to and comment on their coverage of the latest gadget or trend (see, e.g., “Fixing Apple Maps”); it’s one of several sites whose reviews, in particular, I’ve come to greatly admire. That CNET’s editors got to be the ultimate arbiters of the “Best of CES” seemed a deserved laurel to me. Until today.

CBS Corporation, the parent company of CNET, forced CNET’s editors to change their pick for best of CES, after those editors chose Dish Network’s Hopper (which I’ve blogged about excitedly last week; see “What’s on TV at CES”). The Hopper helps push your satellite signal to various TVs around the house; the most recent iteration adds Slingbox functionality that can push DVR’d shows to your iPad. CBS and other networks hate it, and are engaged in litigation with Dish over it. Hence the gag order CBS Corp. put on the poor editors at CNET.

Shame on CBS for hobbling CNET’s editorial independence. Kudos to Greg Sandoval, the former Washington Post and LA Times reporter who ended a seven-year stint today at CNET, quitting because he “want[s] to be known as an honest reporter.” Walking out behind Sandoval might be one of the smartest moves some of his CNET colleagues could make right now.

Do corporate overlords not understand what animates journalists? Did CBS CEO Leslie Moonves (forgive the proliferation of C-acronyms, folks) really think that he could veto CNET’s decision, refuse them the right to be transparent about it, and think that word of those actions would not come out? Of course someone was going to leak somewhere–as someone indeed did to The Verge–the true story: that the Hopper hadn’t been removed from consideration before the CNET editors’ vote, but after it.

The Verge’s story suggests that CBS legal worried that CNET praise could show up in the Dish litigation, potentially causing embarrassment for CBS: the legal department is “just trying to keep its court case clean,” said a Verge source. Well, now CBS legal can have the pleasure of seeing The Verge’s and others’ coverage of the CNET editors decision showing up in the court case–on top of sustaining the self-inflicted wound of seriously damaging one of the better brands in tech journalism.

CBS’s apparent attempt to draw a distinction between reviews and “actual news” is spurious; reviews are journalism too, and are especially vital to technology journalism. Censorship is censorship.

Ultimately, if honest reviews (and, relatedly, the designation of awards) are censored, innovation suffers, and consumers lose. Since when are legal cases decided on the basis of a CNET review, anyway? If the legal case against Dish has merit, it will be decided on the law. Either way, Dish Network has built a product that has tech journalists and consumers alike excited–a gadget that pushes DVR recordings to a tablet, something all of us crave in the dizzying, fractured landscape that is TV today (see “The Gordian Knot of Television”). CBS’s attempt to stymie this excitement is craven and ultimately self-defeating.

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