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Amazon’s weak attack on the New York Times

Amazon displays its logo during a news conference in New York in 2011. (Associated Press/Mark Lennihan, File)
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Jay Carney, senior vice president for global corporate affairs at Amazon, has written a piece on Medium blasting the New York Times for alleged reporting failures in its hard-edged August story about the work culture at the Seattle-based online retailer. “The Times got attention for their story, but in the process they did a disservice to readers, who deserve better,” wrote Carney, who formerly served as White House press secretary for President Obama.

The first part of Carney’s argument is certainly incontrovertible: Published on Aug. 16, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” by Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, deplored the retailer’s allegedly sweatshop white-collar working conditions, with a few caveats about the exhilarating atmosphere of innovation. The Internet took notice, in part because of lines like these: “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” the Times quoted former employee Bo Olson as saying. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.” That quote came seven paragraphs into the massive investigative story, helping set its tone. And Carney says it’s bogus.

That’s because Olson himself, writes Carney in his Medium piece, had a short tenure at the retailer, which “ended after an investigation revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records. When confronted with the evidence, he admitted it and resigned immediately.”

Okay, that’s a bad development for the New York Times. What’s worse is that Carney alleges that the newspaper — Kantor, specifically — never presented Amazon with Olson’s testimony. “Did Ms. Kantor’s editors at the Times ask her whether Mr. Olson might have an axe to grind? Or under what circumstances Mr. Olson’s employment at Amazon was terminated? Even with breaking news, journalistic standards would encourage working hard to uncover any bias in a key source. With six months to work on the story, journalistic standards absolutely require it,” writes Carney, who knows about journalism from his nearly 20 years at Time magazine.

There’s more in the Carney bill of particulars. One of the complaints pertains to the case of Elizabeth Willet, a former Army captain who’d served in Iraq and fashioned a work schedule of 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  after having a baby. Colleagues, reported the Times, complained to her boss about her hours, and “Ms. Willet’s co-workers strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management,” wrote Kantor and Streitfeld. Unbalanced, charges Carney: The three pieces of feedback for Willet all “included positive feedback on strengths as well as thoughts on areas of improvement,” writes Carney, in a rather underwhelming gripe.

Two other specific, bullet-pointed instances of alleged New York Times misfeasance round out the Carney broadside, yet they don’t amount to much. One faults the New York Times for having failed to inquire about a written performance review for an employee who received some harsh words before getting promoted; and the other cites a statement from an overworked employee indicating that her insane hours were her “choice.”

Now the whole thing is turning into a Medium brawl. New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet just posted his response on the publishing platform and provides specifics on each point of the Amazon attack. On the question of Olson, Baquet writes, “Olson described conflict and turmoil in his group and a revolving series of bosses, and acknowledged that he didn’t last there. He disputes Amazon’s account of his departure, though. He told us today that his division was overwhelmed and had difficulty meeting its marketing commitments to publishers; he said he and others in the division could not keep up. But he said he was never confronted with allegations of personally fraudulent conduct or falsifying records, nor did he admit to that.”

The story about Amazon employees crying on the job, adds Baquet, was consistent with the statements of other sources for the story. “Several other people in other divisions also described people crying publicly in very similar terms,” Baquet writes.

At the middle of all of this is Olson himself. The Erik Wemple Blog left a message for him via LinkedIn and hasn’t heard back. Yet Amazon, in its quest to discredit the New York Times, has seen fit to include highly negative details about the terms of Olson’s departure — a decision that itself shores up the depiction in the newspaper of a no-holds-barred work environment. Let’s look again at what Amazon said about his departure: He “attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records.”

Will Amazon provide greater detail about these alleged misdeeds? We asked Amazon for just that. After all, if the retail giant is willing to slime this fellow solely to attack the New York Times, why not slime him all the way?

On the flip side of the coin, Baquet doesn’t deny that Kantor and Streitfeld published Olson’s comments without running them by the people at Amazon. That, indeed, is a vetting problem.

The back-and-forth between Carney and Baquet merely extends a summertime drama. After the story was published, it was the talk of the often overlapping worlds of tech and media, with everyone chiming in with some opinion along the continuum between total hit job and glimmering example of business journalism. New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan criticized it for being driven by anecdotes instead of data. Baquet registered his disagreement: “I reject the notion that you can report a story like this in any way other than with anecdotes. You talk to as many people as possible and you draw conclusions. That’s the only way to approach it.”

Baquet was right: CNN/ORC, NBC/WSJ and all those other great partnerships don’t conduct happiness polls for Amazon employees. You have to pound and pound and pound until you feel you have a grasp of the material. Kantor and Streitfeld appear to have met that standard. To read the piece is to experience journalism with redundancy; the damning stories of people driven to extremes and early exits are plentiful, and a great deal of it comes from on-the-record sources — which is the dynamic that enables the exchanges about Olson in the first place.

Amazon, wrote Carney, had placed these concerns before the New York Times several weeks ago and decided to resort to Medium after it hadn’t heard back from Baquet & Co. In an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog, Baquet said that the newspaper took the company’s pushback seriously and was in the process of sending a reply when Carney published his version of events. “I think if you read our response you will see that Jay, being a good pr person, did a little bit of nifty footwork that in the end does not really challenge the finding of the story,” wrote Baquet to the Erik Wemple Blog.

Perhaps most comical is Carney’s citation of an e-mail from Kantor to Amazon executive Craig Berman. He pasted it into his Medium blast:

Craig, it was a real pleasure to meet with you last week. Thinking back, I hope I accomplished two things in particular. The first was to convey that this story will express that Amazon has a somewhat counterintuitive theory of management that really works, in both a results-oriented way and a “there is evidence that what makes people really happy in the workplace is productivity, responsibility and accomplishment, not free organic lunches” way. While we were talking, I also realized that you were envisioning a story that is basically a stack of negative anecdotes from ex-Amazonians. But if we were using that story form, we’d just come to you for responses and be done. As I said, this article is more of an inquiry into the nature of work, which is why we’re trying to get you to share your point of view as well as positive material — to get anecdotes and quotes from you into the story that says “here’s why we do things this way, here’s what we’ve learned, here’s what works for us.” This isn’t a trick to get you to share material that we can easily undercut — we find it genuinely compelling.

What a bunch of hogwash. In other words, great work, Kantor.

(Disclosure: Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)