CNET's editor wasn't in "an impossible situation," far from it

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 14, 2013

From The News Desk

Like so many industries, the media business is currently rewriting a lot of their own rules. That's not all bad. No industry going through this much dramatic change should be hidebound to what was de rigeur for the last 100 years.

Can you be owned by a conglomerate you have to also cover? CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and many others do that regularly. Can your company accept investments from people you also cover? We, and most of the rest of the tech blogosphere, say yes, as long as appropriate disclosures are made. Can you own stakes in companies you also write about? This one is too far for me, but for many respected tech commentators it is not. Should you ever allow quote approval? Many of the most vaunted media brands now say yes. Does sponsored content have a place in legitimate news organizations? Many people say, done clearly and cleanly and fully disclosed, yes, and it may well be the future.

These are just a few of the debates raging. A lot of experienced journalists brought up under the last generations' code of ethics are finding themselves in a career bind: Old school purists of journalism are getting bought or going under. When the former happens, they can hope that a new corporate overlord will honor promises not to meddle in editorial. But you can never really know. And quitting a good job based on fear is risky in this environment.

But quitting a good job based on the reality of breached ethics is something else. It's not only not risky; I'd argue it's risky not to if you want to continue to build a brand and a career for yourself.

Fortunately, while a publication or its corporate overlord may hold nearly every card in this new world -- your salary, your job prospects in a shaky industry, the platform -- journalists hold one very important, even potentially nuclear trump card: Their byline and the trust a reader has put in that byline. With this comes a big responsibility and a powerful weapon.

We are watching this dynamic, as the CNET/CBS scandal unfolds today. In case you've missed it, CNET had named the Dish Hopper their "Best of CES" award. CBS Corporate balked because of a lawsuit involving the parent company. The news got out. Predictably, all hell broke loose. It seems even amid the shifting sands of media ethics, a corporate parent directly meddling in editorial is still universally abhorred. (That's thing No. 1 to be thankful for, when it comes to this story.)

In a weak explanation of what the site did next, Lindsey Turrentine, editor-in-chief of CNET Reviews, writes, "We were in an impossible situation as journalists."

No, you weren't. Not at all. In fact, you were in an enviable position, if you really are a journalist. You had a rare, maybe once-in-a-career chance to make a stand and show the world what you stand for.

I once worked with a very old school media reporter named Andy Hamm who loved to brag about the time he got served with a subpoena, because he got the rare chance to prove that he wouldn't hand over his notes or disclose a source. He had a phrase for the look in his news room when he was served: "Subpoena envy."

Many times in my career -- particularly when I used to do investigative work -- a source has asked what I would do, if I were sued to disclose something. One answer, a cynical one, is "celebrate." We all say it, but there are few times you get to prove to sources that you are the kind of person who will go to jail to protect confidences. That is gold in this business.

For what it's worth, I've had three subpoena threats over the years, but never been hauled into court. What I did have a chance to do was quit a job, when I felt a corporate overlord had violated its promises and gone too far. That was a little over a year ago, when AOL violated its promises not to meddle in TechCrunch editorial, then subsequently did by firing the Editor-in-Chief and appointing someone who was not our organization's chosen successor.

I walked away from a huge salary and a comfortable job with benefits -- just weeks after giving birth. By huge, I mean, huge. There is, after all, a reason many people on staff talked a big game about quitting but didn't. Some may have called that "an impossible situation."

For me, and others who quit on both the business and editorial side, It was only "impossible" if I believed two things. The first was that I wasn't talented enough to land another job, or in my case start my own company. The second was if I believed looking myself in the mirror every day with any sense of pride was one of those negotiable things in life.

Here, my team regularly writes things that are negative about firms who invested in my company or their most prominent portfolio companies. For instance, Accel invested in us and BeachMint, which we've routinely been harsh on. Menlo Ventures has also invested in us and Uber, which we've beat up more than almost any other startup in the past year. Likewise, I called out two venture firms for "sneaky" scout programs last year -- one of which is headed by our largest investor, Marc Andreessen. I have never once had a firm put pressure on me to soften or retract anything we've written. If they did, it might lead to an unfortunate burned bridge, but I'd never call it "an impossible situation." It would, on the contrary, be an opportunity to prove what we say, that editorial isn't beholden to minority shareholders' interests.

Turrentine -- whom I don't know, and I'm sure is talented and wonderful as a person in many ways -- says she wouldn't quit if she had to make this decision again. She's wrong. Not wrong "for her," but wrong in that absolute laws of the journalism universe sense. There is no other way of reading that: She is picking a corporate overlord over her readers. You can do that and keep a job in journalism, even a good job. But you don't get to keep your self respect or the respect of your peers.

That may sound harsh, and it is. But that's what this profession demands. All you have is that contract with readers. If you expect them to follow you through your career, from platform to platform, you owe them. That's who you work for -- and that's never been more pronounced than in the media world we live in today, where people follow individual reporters, not big media brands.

There are good things and bad things about being a journalist. It's incredibly hard work. Typically, you don't make much money. But you get an uncommon position of influence and power if you do it well. You get to call out -- on equal footing -- some of the most powerful people in the political and business worlds. And people listen to you. But you have to earn that right. The flip-side to that is the responsibility to call them out when they try to silence you. You don't get to play it safe if you still want that respect.

What do you do if you value your career, your respectability, and that trust more than a paycheck? You have one choice. One brilliant choice that can both bolster your reputation among readers, sources and potential new employers, while you shame the old one who put you in such a lousy position.

You do this:

— Greg Sandoval (@sandoCNET) January 14, 2013 this

— Greg Sandoval (@sandoCNET) January 14, 2013 and this

— Greg Sandoval (@sandoCNET) January 14, 2013 Greg Sandoval will have no trouble finding work in this industry. Integrity beats any LinkedIn recommendation or resume line you can boast. This is not to say everyone at CNET needs to follow Sandoval's example. Such responsibility is limited to people like Turrentine who followed out corporate's gag order, in my view. But it's certainly an opportunity for anyone on the staff to draw a line in the sand.

In a previous era, we may never have known on a mass scale who Greg Sandoval was or that he'd taken this action, which he downplays on his own Twitter stream. But this is the era of the individual reporter brand. For those who respect the relationship between a journalist and readers, there has never been a better time to build your name or your career. For those who do not, who make excuses for caving to corporate pressure, it's the worst time, because that too whips around Twitter and Facebook just as quickly.

And that's the second thing to be grateful for in this whole debacle. Yes, the ethics of the media business may seem under assault as financial realities and corporate ownerships change. But at the end of the day the loud efficiency of social media makes it crystal clear just what side the individual reporter is on.

You may not be able to control who your company sells to or takes money from, but you can always control who you go to work for everyday-- hard times in journalism or not.

[image Credit: contemplativechristian on Flickr]