An unfortunate truth about most examples of the dangers of corporate media ownership is that they’re invisible. This is because it’s often not about what a corporate media owner does do but what it doesn’t, what stories don’t get reported and what actions aren’t taken. There’s a design to this and it’s basically so that there’s always plausible deniability. How can you prove something that never actually happened? It’s rare that a massive multinational, media-oriented or otherwise, puts visible pressure on one of the smaller media companies it owns and therefore makes it obvious to everyone watching just how insidious corporate ownership can be when it comes to what the general public sees and hears. In other words, it’s rare that this kind of thing doesn’t operate in the shadows and a big media owner comes right out and admits that it’s screwing with the flow of information.
Maybe that’s what makes CBS’s colossal overreach with CNET so damn startling and fascinating. Usually these things are boring and difficult to parse, but what the CBS mothership recently did to the largely above reproach CNET network that it controls is such a blunt instrument to the head that it can be summed up in a few simple sentences, and it’s all the more surprising for that.
Basically, here’s what happened: CNET, the respected technology review website group, was bought by CBS back in 2008 and has been, as far as anyone knows, pretty much left alone by the network since then. At least until last weekend. That’s when CNET was scheduled to pick its annual “best in show” product at Las Vegas’s Consumer Electronics Show; this year the techies at CNET were poised to choose Dish Network’s “Hopper” DVR system, which allows for the recording of dozens and dozens of shows combined with the ability to completely skip commercials. Apparently, CNET decided that this product, combined with “Sling,” which allows users to transfer media to their iPads and other handheld devices without an internet connection, was the most innovative new tech development of the year. There was one problem, unfortunately: CBS is currently in the process of suing Dish network over the Hopper and its ability to cleanly and efficiently cut out commercials. So CBS essentially ordered CNET not to bestow any kind of honor on its current legal nemesis and CNET was forced to publicly acknowledge that its original decision had been withdrawn.
Word has it the order came directly from the top: Les Moonves. If so, it proves two things — one is that CBS is willing to ignore its commitment to journalistic independence and tarnish its own brand as well as the brand of one of its most valuable small media companies (if CNET’s reviews can’t be trusted, what good is it?) and two is that Les Moonves is the most egomaniacal, imperious prick currently lording over an American media company. Either way, this incident exposes with staggering transparency and a complete lack of deniability the conflict of interest you often run into when a giant media conglomerate buys another smaller media outlet: the problems of the corporate mothership, or even a sister network within the media group, suddenly become the problems of the smaller outlet. The behind-the-scenes skulduggery spreads virally throughout the organization and eventually infects the journalistic output of one or more networks.
Needless to say, the journalists at CNET are less than pleased with being muzzled by corporate. CNET’s senior writer, Greg Sandoval, resigned in protest on Monday and there may be more to come. CNET itself, though, has made it clear that it’s willing to bend to the wishes of its overlord; it really has no choice. The problem for the web group is, again, one of reputation moving forward. Why the hell should anyone trust a CNET tech review when it’s been made clear that CBS may be pulling the strings and interfering with CNET’s decision-making process? And why would CBS pay $1.8 billion for CNET, then crap all over its investment?
Actually, the answer to the second question is easy: corporate arrogance. In case you don’t know what that looks like, it’s generally indistinguishable from rank stupidity.