CNET in Turmoil After Greg Sandoval Quits Over Editorial Interference

The week started off with a bang today with the resignation of reporter Greg Sandoval from CNET over allegations of editorial interference by corporate parent CBS. I’m not shocked, on either point.

“Sad to report that I’ve resigned from CNET. I no longer have confidence that CBS is committed to editorial independence,” Greg tweeted this morning. “CNET wasn’t honest about what occurred regarding Dish is unacceptable to me. We are supposed to be truth tellers.”

So, what happened that caused him to so dramatically and publicly quit? CNET Reviews editors had voted to name Dish Network’s Hopper HD DVR the “Best of CES” last week. Before the award was announced, CBS executives told them they couldn’t give the award to Hopper because of litigation the two companies are in the middle of and to choose another winner instead. CNET announced that the Hopper was taken out of the running, but it didn’t come out until later through leaks that it had actually won the award at first. Then CBS announced a new policy – that CNET would not review any products from companies that CBS is in active litigation with. CNET staff was horrified and it cast a pall over CES, the largest event for the company all year.

Apparently, CBS is worried that CNET reviews and the award could be used to undermine its litigation with Dish Network. The Hopper digital video recorder lets you automatically skip commercials in primetime TV on CBS and other major networks. The CBS lawsuit claims the feature infringes the copyrights of broadcasters.

CNET Reviews Editor-in-Chief Lindsey Turrentine wrote in a blog post today that she and other editors fought to keep Hopper the winner. “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.” She goes on: “I could have quit right then. Maybe I should have. I decided that the best thing for my team was to get through the day as best we could and to fight the fight from the other side. Every single member of the CNET Reviews team is a dedicated, ethical, passionate technology critic. If I abandoned them now, I would be abandoning the ship.”

After Greg’s resignation CBS issued this statement: “CBS has nothing but the highest regard for the editors and writers at CNET, and has managed that business with respect as part of its CBS Interactive division since it was acquired in 2008. This has been an isolated and unique incident in which a product that has been challenged as illegal, was removed from consideration for an award. 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.  We look forward to the site building on its reputation of good journalism in the years to come.”

I’m sure that statement is prompting groans around the CNET newsroom. CBS’ policy seriously hinders the ability of CNET journalists to do their jobs and will affect the company’s credibility. No doubt. Reviewers will find popular products off the table if one or the other side has filed even a frivolous lawsuit against the other. CNET Reviews is the first place many people check before making purchases. If products just aren’t included because of something so capricious as a lawsuit that severely reduces the value of the reviews site. This will affect brand perception and readers are already leaving, according to their comments on the site. And it makes you wonder how involved CBS corporate is with its other brands, like 60 Minutes.

Meanwhile, up until Greg quit, there had been no explanation from CNET about what happened, despite the uproar. And that may be all that is said on the matter. The newsroom will have to sit on its hands too and not cover this as a story because CBS execs are very selective in what news about CBS its own journalists can cover. In essence, the journalism at CNET is being compromised because CBS executives are so pissed about the Hopper threatening their revenue model. No journalist wants to work in that environment. As if morale weren’t already low, Greg’s quitting is a one-two blow for the close-knit newsroom.

I worked at CNET for seven years as a senior writer, before quitting to become director of content and media strategy at Bateman Group three months ago. I was burnt out from covering breaking news for 22 years and left because I wanted a change of career. I loved working at CNET, mostly because of the people and the strong sense of comradery. Some of my closest friends work there and Greg is like a brother to me. He’s also one of the best reporters in the industry. I called him the “scoop-meister.” He is relentless in going after a story. And he has an extraordinarily strong sense of justice and integrity. I know he will land at a job where he will be happy and thrive. And that place will be lucky to have him.

This isn’t the first time that the editorial integrity of CNET has been questioned and led to resignations. Three Gamespot editors (Gamespot is owned by CNET) resigned after the dismissal of popular editor Jeff Gerstmann in 2007 before CBS bought CNET. Gerstmann had given a less-than-stellar rating to a game from Eidos Interactive, which had been a big advertiser for the site. CNET executives claimed the dismissal was not related to the review, but they didn’t give a reason citing state law and corporate policy on disclosures about personnel departures. The newsroom was similarly outraged about that incident, and reporters were told not to write about it.

My heart goes out to my buddies at CNET. I know there is a lot of soul searching going on there right now. And it’s a sad day for the beleaguered journalism industry, in general. It’s a reminder of the dangers when the wall between editorial and corporate gets breached.