Once a trusted source for tech news and product reviews, CNET has lost its ethical compass since being acquired by Red Ventures in 2020. Former CNET employees paint a picture of a company where the lines between advertising and editorial are constantly blurred, and where standing up for journalistic integrity has led to consequences for staff.
The acquisition was accompanied by promises from Red Ventures CEO Ric Elias that CNET would continue to operate as an independent publication, with clear guardrails in place to separate the journalism from business interests. But former employees say that these lines were repeatedly breached, with journalists being pressured to work on advertisements for companies they covered, such as Volvo and Arlo.
The story of the CNET Smart Home exemplifies the erosion of ethical standards at the outlet. The Smart Home, a testing ground for home products, had become a beloved brand in its own right. But when Red Ventures came in, the pressure to produce sponsored content proved too great for some teams, leading to layoffs and departures. An advertising deal with GE Appliances even put the future of the Smart Home itself in jeopardy, before being moved to an off-site location.
The situation was not limited to the Smart Home team, as reporters were also pressured to appear in advertisements, despite the ethical quandaries this posed. This led to a “culture of yes men” at CNET, where those who disagreed with Red Ventures initiatives faced job loss or replacement with more compliant staff.
As the GE Appliances ad was released and the Smart Home was put up for sale, many of the original staff had already left the company. Those who remained or were laid off spoke of a toxic work environment, where dissent was not tolerated.
In the end, the fate of CNET serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of corporations with profit-driven agendas taking over a respected source of journalism. The ethical boundaries that once separated advertising and editorial have been erased, leaving the outlet’s credibility in tatters.