“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.
Here’s what the story didn’t tell you about Mr. Olson: his brief tenure at Amazon 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.
Why weren’t readers given that information? The Times boasts that the two reporters with bylines on the story, Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, spent six months working on it. We were in regular communication with Ms. Kantor from February through the publication date in mid-August. 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. 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.
If only it were an isolated mistake. In fact, Kantor never asked us to check or comment on any of the dozen or so negative anecdotes from named sources that form the narrative backbone of the story. If she had, Times readers would have learned a few other things, like:
- Elizabeth Willet, who claims she was “strafed” through the Anytime Feedback tool, received only three pieces of feedback through that tool during her entire time at Amazon. All three included positive feedback on strengths as well as thoughts on areas of improvement. Far from a “strafing,” even the areas for improvement written by her colleagues contained language like: “It has been a pleasure working with Elizabeth.” (By the way, the tool that the Times suggests is institutional encouragement to anonymously stab people in the back is rarely used and, when it is, most feedback is positive. Also, it’s not anonymous. The reporters knew that and dropped some qualifying language deep in the story after painting a picture that was far more entertaining than accurate.)
- Chris Brucia, who recalls how he was berated in his performance review before being promoted, also was given a written review. Had the Times asked about this, we would have shared what it said. “Overall,” the document reads, “you did an outstanding job this past performance year.” Mr. Brucia was given exceptionally high ratings and then promoted to a senior position.
- Dina Vaccari, the former employee who is quoted saying she didn’t sleep for four days straight to illustrate just how hard Amazon forces people to work, posted her own response to the article. Here’s what she said: “Allow me to be clear: The hours I put in at Amazon were my choice. 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.”
There are others. 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.
We worked with the lead reporter on the piece, Ms. Kantor, in the hope that she would provide a balanced portrait of Amazon’s culture. 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.
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. We were skeptical, but Ms. Kantor was consistent in her description of the piece. Here’s how she explained it to Craig Berman, our vice president of public relations, after a visit to Amazon in May:
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.
We decided to participate by sharing much of what Ms. Kantor asked for, yet 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.
When the story came out, we knew it misrepresented Amazon. Once we could look into the most sensational anecdotes, we realized why. We presented the Times with our findings 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.
The Times got attention for their story, but in the process they did a disservice to readers, who deserve better. The next time you see a sensationalistic quote in the Times like “nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk”, you might wonder whether there’s a crucial piece of context or backstory missing — like admission of fraud — and whether the Times somehow decided it just wasn’t important to check.