Why so defensive, Amazon?: Firing back at the New York Times two months later is desperate damage control

The online retailer tries to pick apart a story with more than 100 sources

By Scott Timberg
Published October 19, 2015 8:52PM (EDT)

Given all the negative press Amazon has received over the years – from its workers toiling in overheated warehouses to documentation of the way the online retailer put bookstores out of business to revolt from authors during the Hatchette dispute – you might think by now that this enormous, monopoly-like company would just roll with the punches.

But a two month-old New York Times story about the cutthroat and relentless culture among the corporations white-collar workforce just swam back into sight. Amazon has apparently gotten so big that it can devote significant resources to fact-checking a story that took two New York Times reporters six months each to report. And it’s rich enough it’s able to enlist a former White House chief spokesman to try to debunk the article.

This morning, former Time journalist and Obama spokesman Jay Carney – recently enlisted at Amazon as senior vice president for Worldwide Corporate Affairs -- offered this rebuttal, arguing that the piece was irresponsibly reported and sensationalist. Here’s how he leads off his response, in Medium, titled “What the New York Times Didn’t Tell You”:

“Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

If you read the recent New York Times article about Amazon’s culture, you remember that quote. Attributed to Bo Olson, the image of countless employees crying at their desks set the tone for a front-page story that other media outlets described as “scathing,” “blistering,” “brutal” and “harsh.” Olson’s words were so key to the narrative the Times wished to construct that they splashed them in large type just below the headline.

According to Carney, though, Olson resigned after being caught falsifying records. “Why weren’t readers given that information?”

Here’s the response by New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet:

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.

If there were criminal charges against him, or some formal accusation of wrongdoing, we would certainly consider that. If we had known his status was contested, we would have said so.

And Baquet adds, “His one quote in the story was consistent with those of other current and former employees. Several other people in other divisions also described people crying publicly in very similar terms.”

Similarly, Carney charges reported Jodi Kantor with misleading the company, reprinting a friendly email in which she promised a balanced and responsible story. The fact is, the story was critical of workplace culture, but it was hardly a hit piece. Here’s the first long quote in the story:

“This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” said Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter. “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”

That’s hardly an example of yellow journalism, especially when reporters speak to more than 100 current and former employees on their way to an assessment.

The New York Times, of course, is hardly beyond reproach. But any journalist who’s tried to report a piece a big institution doesn’t want to happen – especially one as fond of nondisclosure agreements and corporate control as Amazon – knows the huge number of people too frightened to speak to the press. For every piece of the story the Times – which errs on the side of caution with reported stories – found, there are likely half a dozen people scared to say something equally damning.

“Virtually every person quoted in the story stated a view that multiple other workers had also told us,” Baquet (who I worked with for a few years at the Los Angeles Times) wrote in his rebuttal. “(Some other workers were not quoted because of nondisclosure agreements, fear of retribution or because their current employers were doing business with Amazon.)”

For those of us who weren’t part of the reporting of this massive story – that is, those of us who are neither Kantor, co-writer David Streitfeld, or the numerous sources they interviewed – the details of who said what are hard to know for sure.

But in the more than two months since the original story ran, most of the credible discussion of Amazon workplace culture hasn't gone the online retailer’s way. One of those – also on Medium – comes from a woman who has since left the company, complaining about being poorly treated during maternity leave by a corporation that continues to have trouble with women. It syncs up with a lot of what was in Kantor and Streitfeld's story.

There’s always the chance that the paper made small errors of judgment in this gargantuan project – it’s hard to know. But when a heavily reported story is taken as credible and the rebuttal takes nine weeks and a heavily paid PR department to turn it out, it makes you wonder if the original story's biggest flaw is that it may be too close for comfort.

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amazon Journalism New York Times