“We Are Supposed To Be Truth Tellers”

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A couple of weeks ago CNET was put into an absurd situation – they could not favorably cover a technology product because the company behind that product was in litigation with CNET’s parent company, CBS.

I wasn’t all that interested in the story at the time. Reporters and bloggers are constantly pressured to write or not write about things by parent companies and even business executives in their own companies. CBS telling CNET what it could and could not write about wasn’t anything I haven’t seen before.

I understand why CBS was trying to control messaging about a company that they were suing, although they certainly weren’t very smart about how they handled it. The Streisand Effect kicked in and not only did the product end up getting tons of extra positive press, but both CBS and CNET looked like idiots.

Still, big companies do stupid things all the time. It’s a big part of why small startups are often so successful at disrupting them.

What I don’t get is why CNET staffers have stuck around. They’re the ones who are supposed to be journalists and all that entails. They’re the ones I blame right now.

I blame them because they’re the only reason CBS is able to get away with this. Every single journalist at CNET should have resigned by now.

More than once at TechCrunch we made AOL extremely uncomfortable with things that we wrote. But they never ordered us to write or not write about something because they understood that not only would we not comply, we’d write a post about the whole thing.

Our independence from AOL was so important to me that I negotiated an extremely odd provision in our purchase agreement that allowed me to disclose confidential information about AOL. It was their job never to give me that information. It was not my job to protect it in any way.

If AOL had ever ordered me to remove a piece of content from the site for any reason I would have immediately written about it and disclosed the situation to our readers. And if I had ever ordered a writer to remove content I would have expected that writer to have done the same to me.

In fact, one of the things I am most proud about at TechCrunch is the culture of independence in its writers. Many times I have been criticized publicly by my own team. We’ve even had absurd arguments break out, on the site, about the pros and cons of one gadget over another. It can drive readers crazy to see all the conflict, but there was never any question about whether or not people’s unfettered opinions were being expressed.

When Greg Sandoval left CNET (to my knowledge the only person who’s resigned over this mess) I thought he’d be the first of many. His words“We are supposed to be truth tellers” – rang true.

Why haven’t others followed him? Why are they still grumbling about it on TV but not actually doing anything about it?

CNET reporters need to either be resigning or be reporting this story, or both. On CNET. If someone higher up removes their content then they should republish it on their personal blogs. If they are then fired for that they should sue the company. And either way, other tech sites, including this one, would be more than happy to make them job offers.

I left (or was fired) TechCrunch in 2011 over editorial independence. The Huffington Post tried (and was successful for a time) to take control of TechCrunch. And not only did I leave, a whole string of writers and editors left shortly afterwards. It wasn’t until AOL removed TechCrunch from the control of the Huffington Post that things stabilized. And today TechCrunch is stronger than it ever was, by far.

And, importantly, even when all of this was going on at TechCrunch, AOL and Huffington Post never successfully tried to censor TechCrunch writers from saying exactly what they thought. Things got messy, but they were never hidden.

Earlier today I read John Gruber’s short post about what’s happening at CNET. He wrote that the situation was untenable, and “CBS either needs to give CNet editorial independence or sell them to someone who will. As it stands, they’re grinding CNet’s reputation and brand into worthless powder.”

Those are almost the exact words I yelled shortly before I left TechCrunch – either sell the site back to the original shareholders or give us true editorial independence.

As with AOL and TechCrunch, it’s unlikely that CBS will do either. But at the very least, it might make CBS think twice if CNET’s editorial and reporter teams were to simply say exactly what they think, and then walk out.

In short I expect big companies to be some combination of stupid and evil. But when the people affected do absolutely nothing, they’re just part of the problem, too.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”

Update: See Truth, Money, Right, Wrong