CNET, CBS and the Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rules

I don’t do much by way of media ownership these days, but the recent mess of CBS meddling with CNET’s decision to award a ‘Best In Show’ to DISH’s new Hopper DVR constitutes another little reminder as to why we care about media cross-ownership in a consolidated world. Given that the FCC appeared at one point poised to significantly relax the rule, this reminder bears highlighting.

More below . . .

For those who have not followed the story, DISH has a product called Hopper that allows viewers to skip commercials (my employer Public Knowledge has filed in  defense of this offering from the inevitable lawsuits filed by the networks). DISH has now incorporated this feature into its revamped DVR, which it unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). CNET, the popular online tech news source, annually makes a “Best of CES” pick and determined this year to give the prize to DISH’s new DVR.

CNET, however, is owned by CBS — one of the aforementioned programming networks suing DISH over Hopper. CBS ordered CNET to bump DISH from consideration, and so they did. Once news of this leaked, it prompted one of CNET’s reporters to publicly resign on Twitter and triggered a little firestorm in tech circles. Criticism ranges from undermining CNET’s credibility with its core audience (and thus doing serious damage to the brand) to serious breaches of journalism ethics by CBS.

Let me add to this yet-another-reminder why media ownership matters. One occasionally hears alleged that media owners will never risk such damage to their brand as to intentionally interfere with their co-owned distribution platforms. As incidents like this remind us, that is just wishful thinking. People do stupid crap all the time. But when I make a stupid decision, I do not end up censoring national news. The idea that owners like CBS will decide not to influence news coverage because, as rational actors, they don’t want to risk damaging their brands goes in the same category as believing that banks would never make risky loans so we can deregulate the subprime mortgage market.

Mind you, we usually end up in the delightful catch-22 that because this time there was a public stink it renders actual rules for cross-ownership unnecessary. So we get a lot of discussion about self-censorship by reporters and failure to cover stories (as opposed to active interference), which leads people to claim there is no proof of actual interference, except when there is, and then it doesn’t count, because we discovered  it so there was no harm.

To be clear, no one wants to regulate CBS’s control over CNET. But we do worry in mass media about join ownership of news outlets — especially in relatively small markets where ownership of the daily paper and several television and radio stations can give a single entity HUGE control over what gets covered and what doesn’t. And yes, there are plenty of other arguments against media ownership limits. The arguments for and against media ownership limits are sufficiently well known and covered elsewhere that I shan’t rehash them here. Go read the archives of TotSF from when I was at Media Access Project of blessed memory if you are interested.

What I am saying is that we should not fool ourselves into thinking that allowing more consolidation won’t compromise the independence of the remaining local media outlets. Of course it will, and CBS’ decision to muzzle CNET lest its subsidiary say something nice about a party it is suing is merely the latest example of a truth the Supreme Court once declared “self-obvious.” The question for policy is whether or not we care. Hopefully, a majority of Commissioners at the FCC still do.

Stay tuned . . . .

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