CNET & the Myth of Impartial Journalism


No one loves journalism as much as journalists.

Unfortunately this love affair with their own profession – and the imagined pedestal they place it upon – makes them blind to the faults that everyone else takes for granted.

Case in point: The tempest in a teapot over at CNET that has journalists – but few others – in a tizzy.

CNET is a technology website owned by CBS that is at its essence a review site for gadgets – tablets, computers, mobile phones and other gizmos.  Putting CNET and journalism in the same sentence is a bit of a stretch.  Here, for example, are three headlines from recent CNET reviews:

As you can see, the only thing missing is exclamation points.  And links to buy all of the reviewed the gadgets at partner shopping sites (where CNET likely takes a cut of the sale). Oh, wait, my mistake, CNET does have those shopping links – and even allows shoppers, sorry, readers to comparison shop on price before clicking buy.

The controversy erupted last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  CES is the largest trade show for the industry – a big party in the desert for all things electronic.  CNET annually awards a gadget at CES with its “Best in Show” award.

This year CNET wanted to bestow the award to the Dish Network’s Hopper with Sling.  The Hopper is a device that allows people to record TV shows, play them on other devices, and fast-forward with ease through those pesky TV commercials.

It just so happens that CBS – the corporate parent of CNET – is embroiled in a lawsuit with Dish over the Hopper.  Who knew that broadcasting companies like CBS actually make money off of those commercials that the Hopper conveniently makes disappear?  Apparently CBS knew, but CNET didn’t.  So the CBS brass stepped in and ordered CNET not to give an award to a company that it is suing.

So far it seems pretty reasonable.  Except we’re talking about journalists.  Faster than you can say ‘Edward R. Murrow” the story was leaked and a storm of criticism was leveled at CBS.  They have been accused of censorship, of destroying journalistic integrity, and for ruining journalistic independence.

Who is making these accusations?  Journalists, of course.  The only people left in the world who really believe that the business of journalism is impartial – or ever has been.

One writer at CNET even quit over the incident.

I still believe in good journalism.  The New York Times and The Financial Times practice it, for example.  But every news organization has its biases, tendencies and beliefs (I have listed many of the sins on this blog many times).  Some outlets are less impartial than others (hello, FOX News).  But all of them answer to the bottom-line and they always have.

The business of journalism has never been impartial.  It’s a prevailing myth about journalism.

But this case is even more ridiculous.  We’re talking about CNET – a site dedicated to glorifying gadgets and the people who manufacture them.  This isn’t journalism.  A trade show award isn’t journalism either – no matter who gives it out.

I think CBS explained itself well in its public statement on the matter:

“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.”

What do you think?



USA Today commentary “At CBS, Business Trumps Integrity”

The Verge coverage of the CNET story

The Death of the Deadline

2 Responses to “CNET & the Myth of Impartial Journalism”

  1. I think advertising and commerce now rule the world — and at no other time before has it been made so clear that journalism is a business, too — who pays for the ink, the paper, the cameras, the studio equipment, our salaries? Time was when using a brandname in a headline was a no-no, but came the Devil Wears Prada and that rule goes. I mean readers do find it more interesting if you say “Paris Hilton hurls Louis Vuitton Speedy at boyfriend (not true); boyfriends gets eight stitches” than if you say she hurls a handbag at him. Materialism, conspicuous consumption are the new way of life and they affect everything — they’ve always been there, bur now we all embrace them without compunction, woe to dignity, virtue, restraint!

  2. CNET are a bunch of silly buggers, unless of course they’re getting kickbacks on sales of Dish Networks Hopper with Sling, as your post implies. See, they must have known that Dish were being sued by their parent organisation, because they are supposed to be journalists. Yes, I know they’re not investigative journalists, but they might at least have read about this or heard about it around the water cooler. They would know that all publicity is good publicity, and that this miniature shit-storm-in-a-tea-cup would boost interest and sales, which means more money for CNET as well. Good eh? They won’t care about a slap on the wrist so long as there’s money in their pockets.

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