A Blistering Response From Amazon

But The New York Times defended its story about the work culture at the online retailer.

Ted S. Warren/ AP

Updated on October 19 at 3:15 p.m. ET

Amazon says a New York Times story from August about what it’s like to work at the online retailer “misrepresented” the company. In a scathing response, Amazon says it presented its findings to the newspaper several weeks ago, “hoping they might take action to correct the record. They haven’t, which is why we decided to write about it ourselves.” Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, in a response reiterated his “support for our story about Amazon’s culture.”

The piece, published in Medium, is written by Jay Carney, the former White House spokesman who now serves as Amazon’s senior vice president for global corporate affairs. Baquet’s response, in the form of a letter to Carney, was also posted on Medium.

Among the claims made in Amazon’s response: Bo Olson, the former Amazon employee quoted in the Times story as saying, “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” left the company “after an investigation revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records”; another worker, Elizabeth Willet, who was quoted as saying she was “strafed” through the company’s feedback tool, received three pieces of feedback through that tool, including positive feedback; Dina Vaccari, an Amazon employee quoted in the story saying she didn’t sleep for four days because of how hard the company wanted its employees to work, now says: “No one forced me to do this—I chose it and it sucked at the time but in no way was I asked or forced by management to do this.”

The response specifically finds fault with the Times’ Jodi Kantor, who spent six months reporting the story with David Streitfeld, another of the newspaper’s reporters.

“We were in regular communication with Ms. Kantor from February through the publication date in mid-August,” Carney writes. “And yet somehow she never found the time, or inclination, to ask us about the credibility of a named source whose vivid quote would serve as a lynchpin for the entire piece.”

Amazon’s response adds:

In any story, there are matters of opinion and there are issues of fact. And context is critical. Journalism 101 instructs that facts should be checked and sources should be vetted. When there are two sides of a story, a reader deserves to know them both. Why did the Times choose not to follow standard practice here? We don’t know. But it’s worth noting that they’ve now twice in less than a year been called out by their own public editor for bias and hype in their coverage of Amazon. (Last fall, the public editor wrote a critique of the paper’s coverage of Amazon’s negotiations with Hachette titled “Publishing Battle Should Be Covered, Not Joined.” And in the wake of the story on Amazon’s culture, she wrote, “The article was driven less by irrefutable proof than by generalization and anecdote. For such a damning result, presented with so much drama, that doesn’t seem like quite enough.”)

What we do know is, had the reporters checked their facts, the story they published would have been a lot less sensational, a lot more balanced, and, let’s be honest, a lot more boring. It might not have merited the front page, but it would have been closer to the truth.

The pushback from the company more than two months after the Times published its story illustrates the level to which Amazon is trying to correct the narrative that depicted Amazon as a brutal place to work. Here’s an excerpt from the Times story, that’s fairly typical:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

Baquet, in his response, said in the course of the reporting, the Times found patterns: “many people raised similar concerns.” Here’s more:

Virtually every person quoted in the story stated a view that multiple other workers had also told us. (Some other workers were not quoted because of nondisclosure agreements, fear of retribution or because their current employers were doing business with Amazon.)

And he noted: “The story did not assert that every Amazon employee had a difficult time there.” Baquet issued a point-by-point rebuttal of every example Carney raised in his post earlier Monday. Discussing the specific example of Olson, Baquet wrote:

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.

Carney replied to Baquet’s letter, saying: “The bottom line is the New York Times chose not to fact-check or vet its most important on-the-record sources, despite working on the story for six months. I really don’t see a defensible explanation for that failure.”

But Amazon, in its posts Monday, did not challenge the other claim made in the Times story: that Amazon can be a challenging place for its female employees. One female employee, Molly Jay, who had received high ratings for years, found herself being called “a problem” after she began traveling to care for her father, who was stricken with cancer. Another, Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old mother of three children, was told, in the words of the newspaper, “that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required.” A third, Julia Cheiffetz, wrote in Medium, about being sidelined after having a child and being diagnosed with cancer.

When the story was first published, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos responded almost immediately, writing a memo to his company’s 180,000 workers that “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

Baquet, writing directly to Carney, added: “I should point out that you said to me that you always assumed this was going to be a tough story, so it is hard to accept that Amazon was expecting otherwise.”

Carney’s reply to Baquet: “Reporters like to joke about stories and anecdotes that are ‘too good to check.’ But the joke is really a warning. When an anecdote or quote is too good to check, it’s usually too good to be true.”