Hacking Through Amazon’s Jungle of Coverage

Journalistic questions about The Times’ exposé

The New York Times exposé of working conditions at Amazon lacks two key attributes: context and — I can’t quite believe I’m saying this — balance.

Like everyone in my feeds, I read the story with something verging on horror. Since then, I’ve seen many tweets presenting another perspective and just read a point-by-point rebuttal by an Amazonian.

Where’s the truth? in the mix. Except as a reader, I had to go search for that mix.

First, context: Last night on Twitter, I half-joked that Amazon sounded like many newspaper newsrooms:

Jay Rosen later responded:

You get the point: Where is the context about work as a whole? Is every office as wonderful as Google and Facebook are supposed to be? No, of course not. We all know that. So to what standard is Amazon being held? Is it better or worse than comparable and realistic (read: unGoogle) workplaces? That’s not in the piece. It needs to be.

Now to balance. Nick Ciubotariu, an engineer and executive at Amazon, wrote a very long rebuttal on LinkedIn, which I found only thanks to a Dan Gillmor link. Amid some amusing techcospeak (an issue “gets actioned”) are clear and sincere explanations for much of what The Times thinks it has exposed. For example, the orientation at any company, taken out of context, might sound like brainwashing; that’s normal. He says that the cases of how employees with pregnancies and health and family issues were allegedly mistreated are appalling and the company must address them. He acknowledges that Amazon might have changed between its founding and his hiring 18 months ago. But he likes working there. He, like many colleagues, is attracted to tackling huge problems — and that is obviously not easy work.

The Times talked with some Amazon employees but makes a point of saying that they were offered up by the company and so they are presumed to be like North Korean media handlers; they are to be discounted. Most of what The Times garnered from unofficial sources was negative. Most of what Ciubotariu says is positive.

We, the readers, are left to balance these accounts ourselves. And that’s my problem. The Times should have presented enough of that conflicting evidence so that we could weigh evidence and decide for ourselves whether Amazon is hell in Seattle.

But The Times decided that for us. It wanted to expose Amazon’s working conditions. It devoted two reporters for six months to do just that (who would devote such resource to finding out that it’s an OK place to work, if you have to work?).

The Times had an agenda. Well, some of you might remind me: Haven’t you, Jarvis, argued that journalism is by definition advocacy? Yes, and it’s clear The Times wanted to tackle the issues that arise from such demanding work. But as a journalistic institution, The Times is still required to exhibit the intellectual honesty to credibly and fairly present evidence that counters its worldview. It is still required to give us in the public the respect and trust to make our own decisions about what it presents.

But that’s not what The Times did. I am not doubting the truth of what The Times presented, only the selection. I am also not saying that after balancing all this, I would want to work at Amazon. I can’t stand the idea of a culture that enables an anonymous feedback system, which The Times exposes and its employee defends; I sure as hell won’t want to see that trend spread to other workplaces. I worry about a culture that can allow the cases of cold-hearted lack of empathy for employees’ lives that The Times presents, even if they are just anecdotal. On the other hand, I admire greatly the commercial and logistical miracle that Amazon has built. I love the idea of working side-by-side with people as smart, accomplished, dedicated, and passionate as the people who have built Amazon. I also read the piece worried that all this publicity would lead — Gawkerlike — to unionization, and I think that could jeopardize its growth.

On that last point, you may think I sound like an owner. I am. I have long held a few shares in Amazon. So you should judge what I say here with that conflict of interest well in mind. You’re probably scolding me right now for not saying it at the top of this piece. You’d be right. And that is how I illustrate my last point: The Times did not say until halfway down its very long piece that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which some say is closing in on The Times.

The problem at a moment like this is that once one starts to believe The Times might have an agenda, one is left trying to suss out what it might be: against Amazon and its owner, Bezos, who is a competitor; against technology, a direction too much of media is taking (you should see the latest from Der Spiegel; its technopanic should be printed in purple ink); in favor of big labor? I wouldn’t be wondering that if The Times had given me greater context and balance and sufficient information to let me decide about Amazon for myself rather than having it decided for me. And that’s too bad. There is much good reporting here. There are important issues and modern-day phenomenon that deserve discussion. Instead, we’re starting to discuss The Times.

To be clear: I am not saying The Times has a competitive agenda against the Post and thus Bezos. I am saying that it will open itself up to such questioning by not being sufficiently transparent and not exhibiting intellectual honesty by providing sufficient balance to make clear that in the end the judgment is the reader’s.

And here is the letter Bezos sent to staff Sunday night:

Dear Amazonians,
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html
I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu
Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly atjeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.
The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.
I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.
But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.
Thank you,
Jeff