Amazon's Jay Carney Fires Back at NY Times Expose, Claims Paper Failed to Fact-Check, Vet Sources

Obama Alum Jay Carney - H 2014
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Obama Alum Jay Carney - H 2014

The former White House press secretary suggests that readers weren't given the necessary context for negative anecdotes from former employees and that 'The Times' failed to let Amazon provide such a larger perspective, both before and after the story was published.

More than two months after the New York Times published a shocking expose of what it claimed was a demanding workplace culture at Amazon, the company's svp, corporate affairs and former White House press secretary Jay Carney has fired back, claiming that a number of the "negative anecdotes" are missing key contextual details.

For instance, he notes that former employee Bo Olson, who told The Times, "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk," resigned after a brief tenure with Amazon, during which time an investigation revealed he "attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records."

"When confronted with the evidence, he admitted it and resigned immediately," Carney, a former Time magazine reporter, writes in a post on Medium.

He also claims that a former employee quoted as saying she didn't sleep for four days in a row, an example of how hard Amazon forces people to work, posted her own response to the article in which she claims the lack of sleep was her own doing.

“Allow me to be clear: The hours I put in at Amazon were my choice," Dina Vaccari says, according to Carney. "I was enrolled in the University of Washington’s Foster Technology MBA program while I was in charge of building three new Amazon retail categories and going through an emotional breakup when I didn’t sleep for those four days. No one ever 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.”

Carney criticizes The Times and reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, who wrote the front-page Amazon story, for failing to check or ask for comment on "any of the dozen or so negative anecdotes from named sources that form the narrative backbone of the story."

"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," Carney writes. "It might not have merited the front page, but it would have been closer to the truth."

Carney also sheds some light on how the story came about and what he says he and the company were told about what kind of piece it would be.

He says Amazon was in "regular communication" with Kantor, whom he says was the lead reporter on the piece, for the six months leading up to publication.

"I, and members of my team, had several background conversations with her, met with her twice in person, and arranged for a full day of interviews in Seattle with three leaders from different Amazon businesses. I also offered to go on the record myself," Carney writes. "Through those conversations, we were repeatedly assured that this would be a nuanced story that dove into what makes Amazon an exciting and fun place to be, not just a demanding place to work."

He even shares the following email from Kantor to public relations vp, Craig Berman, in which she describes the approach of the piece.

"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."

Carney suggests Kantor misled them writing, "the article she specifically said they were not writing became the article that we all read. And, despite our months-long participation, we were given no opportunity to see, respond to, or help fact-check the 'stack of negative anecdotes' that they ultimately used."

Furthermore, Carney says Amazon presented its findings to The Times, 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."

Carney's response follows a staff memo from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, released the Monday after the Times story was published, in which he claimed that he doesn't "recognize this Amazon."

"I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay," he writes in the memo. "I know I would leave such a company."

In his staff memo, Bezos particularly took issue with the article's "anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems," saying this approach was uncharacteristic of his company and the "caring Amazonians I work with every day." He also urged employees to report such incidents to human resources or even to him directly.

In a response also posted on Medium, NY Times executive editor Dean Baquet defended the article, noting that the process of reporting the story included conversations with more than a hundred current and former employees, many of whom raised similar concerns, including people they talked to but didn't quote because of nondisclosure agreements, fear of retribution or because their current employers were doing business with Amazon. The reporters on the story also spoke to outsiders who interact with Amazon employees, including recruiters, people at tech firms and employment lawyers.

"The story did not assert that every Amazon employee had a difficult time there," Baquet writes in his own post.

Baquet notes that he and Carney have had a number of recent email exchanges in which the Amazon exec also "contested the article’s assertion that many employees found Amazon a tough place to work."

Furthermore, Baquet says of Carney's specific examples of four former employees quoted in the story, a small portion of the more than two dozen named current or former Amazon employees, "The information for the most part, though, did not contradict what the former employees said in our story; instead, you mostly asserted that there were no records of what the workers were describing. Of course, plenty of conversations and interactions occur in workplaces that are not documented in personnel files."

Olson, Baquet says, has a different account of his departure.

"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," Baquet writes. "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. 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."

As for Vaccari, Baquet points out that "We never said Amazon was forcing Vaccari to work that hard." Instead, she was an example of how employees had internalized the company's demands.

He also takes issue with Carney's suggestion that Amazon was misled by Kantor.

"We have reviewed notes from Ms. Kantor’s communications with your team," Baquet writes. "The topics discussed relatively early on included Amazon’s reputation as a difficult place to work, social cohesion, complaints of a culture of criticism and other worker concerns that were emerging from the reporting."

In conclusion, Baquet writes, "As I said in the beginning, this story was based on dozens of interviews. And any reading of the responses leaves no doubt that this was an accurate portrait."

Carney responded to Baquet with another Medium post reiterating that The Times should still have fact-checked and vetted its sources.

"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," Carney writes. "Falling back on the claim that Ms. Kantor and Mr. Streitfeld talked to 'more than a hundred' people doesn’t explain why they chose not to check the stories of their most critical on-the-record sources, or to inquire whether any of those sources might have an axe to grind."

Oct. 19, 11:06 a.m. This story has been updated to include Baquet's Medium response.

Oct. 19, 12:32 p.m. This story has been updated to include Carney's response to Baquet's post.