The decision last month by CBS to bar its tech news site subsidiary, CNET, from reviewing certain products felt like an old-school case in media ethics, a classic example of editorial independence subverted by corporate influence. But a longer lens shows that in embracing one ethos presented by the digital age, CBS ran smack into another.

What CBS and CNET didn’t understand was that simply being transparent about their decision did not negate the problematic issue of censoring reviews with corporate interference. And they also failed to engage with readers on the issue, who were left wondering if CNET’s editorial independence could be trusted again.

The initial battle erupted over a CBS executive mandate that CNET pull an award it gave to Dish Network’s Hopper with Sling, a DVR that allows users to easily skip ads. Dish had earned CNET’s best-in-show honor for International CES, a massive consumer electronics trade show closely watched in tech circles. Noting that it is in litigation with Dish over the Hopper, CBS ordered CNET to revoke the award and stop reviewing products implicated in CBS lawsuits.

Disclosing the decision

CNET staff argued to overturn the decision, and initially, public statements about the matter indicated only that the device had been removed from consideration. Competing tech site The Verge revealed that the Hopper actually had won the award and CNET’s corporate parent revoked the honor.

CNET soon appended an editor’s note to its original glowing review of the Hopper:

The Dish Hopper with Sling, the original pick for Best Home Theater and Audio product and Best of Show, was removed from consideration due to active litigation involving our parent company, CBS Corp. We will no longer be reviewing products manufactured by companies with which we are in litigation with respect to such product.

The ban was intended to cover reviews only, not news content, though many struggled with how that kind of bright line can be drawn for an outlet like CNET, where tech news is often infused with a writer’s evaluation of a device or service.

Functions at issue

CBS is not alone in the lawsuit giving rise to the dispute. ABC, NBC and Fox also argue that the Dish “AutoHop” function — allowing users to automatically skip over commercials — is an unlawful copyright infringement. The networks claim their broadcast content includes advertising spots, so the material alteration of that content violates their copyright.

CBS was apparently so exorcised about the question that it also forced removal of references to AutoHop in the original CNET review, leading to a bizarre editor’s note when the line eventually was restored:

After initial publication, we previously removed mention of Dish’s AutoHop technology from this article because of CBS’ litigation with Dish, and have re-inserted the mention. For the purposes of full disclosure, CBS and many other media companies are in litigation with Dish with respect to the legality of the AutoHop technology.

Becoming transparent

Though somewhat couched in legal speak, the editor’s notes are examples of what some point to as a key ethic for media in the Internet age: transparency. The idea takes various shapes. It’s sometimes seen as a way of countering an inherent bias: “We can’t be truly objective, so if we’re transparent with our audience about our biases, we counter them.” Others see transparency as an audience-empowering means to share what we know when we know it and let people contribute to the dialogue.

In a way, CBS and CNET were doing both. They wiped away the opacity of corporate culture to tell their audience that they had an insurmountable conflict of interest. If they promoted Hopper with Sling, they were inherently supporting a violation of their own copyright and damage to their business model.

In doing so, they also told the audience that they wouldn’t be reviewing certain devices, a virtual invitation to techies to fill the void on their own.

To err in digital

This embrace of — albeit tardy — transparency, makes two critical mistakes.

First, like many who endorse transparency as the ultimate new media ethic, CBS mistakenly viewed it as dispositive — if we’re transparent about our actions, we’re ethically cleansed. Wrong.

Consider a wife who cheats on her husband. Her ethical transgressions are the lying and violation of trust. If she comes home and tells her husband she’s been cheating and plans to continue doing it, her transparency has done nothing to transform her unethical choices.

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CBS let its audience know that it interfered with CNET’s editorial independence, but it fully plans to continue doing so and has, with its coverage of Roku’s Aereo app. The company was forthright with its readers, but that does nothing to change the fact that it’s preempting perfectly valid reviews of currently legal devices and censoring them out of the audience’s reach.

Second, CBS failed to recognize a new digital ethos that has chewed up and spit out plenty of media companies used to old models: participation.

In our networked environment, even massive media do not have the monologue they were once used to. Walter Cronkite sitting at the anchor desk and talking to his audience was the 800-pound gorilla of one-to-many communication. But in digital spheres, the audience talks back. They don’t want monologue. They want dialogue, and they will establish it via sharing on social media, commenting on stories, voicing their discontent online and creating new content in opposition.

Olympic watchers who don’t like the NBC tape delay will jump on Twitter and establish #NBCfail. Techies who don’t want their reviews tainted have successfully pressured CES to dump CNET as its partner.

Strategy meets participation

The response to the CBS censorship clearly highlighted it as a strategic failure. The marketing team at Dish must have had a pleasant few days as the controversy gave rise to vastly more attention to the Hopper than they could have gotten with any standard media plan.

But that failure was particularly digital. When network brass interfered with Cronkite and his generation, they had few avenues of protest beyond quitting in response, as one CNET staffer did. The audience back then had no means besides letter-writing, a one-to-one communication.

Today, ethical breaches face a brighter spotlight powered by participation. CBS and other media giants would be wise to act ethically and foster editorial independence because it is the right thing to do. But they also should know that when they violate ethics, they’re not doing it in the dark.

Accountability to audience has entered a new age. Whether people come to recognize the power of participation and use it to actually serve as a check on media power remains to be seen.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver is an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication and associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. Long interested in the implications of digital media on journalism and public interest communication, Culver focuses on the ethical dimensions of social tools, technological advances and networked information. She combines these interests with a background in law and the effects of boundary-free communication on free expression. She also serves as visiting faculty for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.