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Some of you may be aware of a recent CBS policy switch (CBS owns CNET) restricting what products CNET may review. Media writer Jim Romenesko emailed me yesterday to ask about it. I thought there might be broader interest, so I'm sharing my response with him below. Here's Jim's separate writeup:



Thanks for your email. I hope you're well -- I always enjoy reading your articles. I've copied Jen, who does PR for CNET and may be able to provide you with additional background.

I don't feel it's appropriate to discuss any internal deliberations. I can say that I'm not aware of other media companies that have similar policies.

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. ( 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.

Thanks again for the email.

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Journalism has traditionally had a (often violated) 'church and state', or 'chinese wall' separation between itself and their publications' advertising departments. Similarly, editorial independence from the owners has been an ideal not often achieved. Just because making this particular policy explicit has no precedent doesn't mean much. If you want independent, unbiased reviews, go to Consumer Reports.
Declan, I can understand why you can only write this. After all CBS signs your paycheck.

But I can say that IMHO, their decision is wrong, and it will hurt the journalistic credibility of both CNET and CBS.
I knew there was a reason I disliked CBS other than their over-reliance on police procedurals and Chuck Lorre.
I'm absolutely appalled that CBS has such a policy and continues to maintain their position even after the policy was outed. Do any of their execs care about integrity at all?
The policy creates so many questions. For example:

1. Is CNET only prohibited from reviewing products that are the subject of the litigation? Say for example that CBS pulls its channels off of DirectTV because of a fee dispute. DirectTV responds with a lawsuit. Can CNET still review DirectTV products?

2. What if a CNET writes a negative review of a product and the target company responds with a lawsuit. Is CNET prohibited from writing additional reviews about that company?

3. Can CNET effectively review competitors to the banned products? How can CNET review a TIVO without comparing it to the features available on the Hopper?

And many more.....
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