Amazon and the New York Times are in a tiff. The Times reported two months ago on what it portrayed as the somewhat brutal work culture of the company. A fair critique would be that it was rather one-sided: people may be worked beyond breaking there, as reported, but there are also many people who work more normal jobs with normal hours. It wound up feeling like an exposé, when it was more accurately a slice of work life that could have used more leavening. (The Times public editor had that position.)
Amazon’s culture isn’t unique, but based on my local understanding — I worked there briefly in the late-90s and know a lot of past and present employees over decades — it has a degree of intensity that exceeds most. Microsoft was at one time more like this, and mellow. (Also the stuff about Bezos’ principles of management that people cite like Chairman Mao’s sayings inside the company creeps me out.)
But Amazon’s PR chief, former Obama press secretary Jay Carney, wants you to believe the entire credibility of a story reported over months with 100-odd sources, buoyed after publication by many hundreds of people sharing stories — some concurring, some contradicting the tenor, and many providing more nuanced shading — hinges on the quotes of one named source. I don’t want to name him here, because I believe Amazon has already done enough to try to indict his reputation without providing facts to do so. Let’s call him Armin Zann.
Carney quotes this part of the story; I’m including a bit more:
[Mr. Zann] lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
Carney shockingly notes that:
Here’s what the story didn’t tell you about Mr. [Zann]: 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.
Good gravy. That’s terrible. I mean, Amazon disclosing personnel information in a public forum in an attempt to discredit a source who stated more succinctly what many others also described. As Dean Baquet, the Times executive editor noted in a reply:
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.
Baquet also went through the three other examples Carney provided (again with personnel file disclosures), although Amazon says it has many more. (Show your work!) While not perfect, I find Baquet’s explanation consistent with the presentation in the story.
Carney doubled down in a rebuttal on the guy they accuse of fraud and these three other sources:
…[S]ince they didn’t bother to check or vet the anecdotes and quotes from sources willing to go on the record, how much credibility should readers assign to all the anecdotes and quotes in the story from anonymous sources, the ones no one can check even now?
This is, of course, brilliant PR. Find a weak point, hammer away at it, and try to collapse the credibility of a publication and its reporters for readers — and for investors and consumers. (Hey, Jay, I’d love to hear more about extraordinary rendition, warrantless wiretaps, unconstitutional domestic spying, the extraterritorial suspension of rights of prisoners at Guantanamo, and so forth. No? No? Ok, then, let’s move on.)
I’ve been a reporter for over two decades. How should the Times have handled vetting a source that gave “color,” a comment that helps distill the total sum of an article. What would my editors have asked me for had I delivered this piece?
- Additional verification. One person saying “nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk” is powerful, but is it representative? Once I’d had that interview, if I didn’t already, I’d be talking to other sources, whether named or ultimately quoted in the story or (with consultation with my editors) allowed to remain anonymous. It’s a powerful charge, and I’d want to know he wasn’t exaggerating or isolated. The Times says it sought and obtained that verification.
- Is he credible? Since he left the company, I’d want to know if he were entangled with other interests. Is he working for a competitor? Had he filed a lawsuit? Was he dismissed? Were there criminal charges? The last is unlikely, but would be useful. I’d work some angles, maybe pull a background check if it were warranted and absolutely search publicly available data, and certainly disclose to a source I was going to examine his background to make sure it matched what he told me. This might include verifying his employment and position with his former employer, Amazon.
It’s not the job of a reporter to tell the subject of a story precisely what’s being written; it’s certainly a publication’s job to ensure that every fact in a story is accurate and presented with adequate context to interpret the facts.
I’ve been trying to imagine how I would have fact-checked the “crying at their desks” fact in a way that would have elicited Amazon’s response that the source left after admitting to fraud. Here’s my speculative conversation:
NYT: Hi, Amazon, we’re just doing a final check on some details for our story. I wonder if you could verify the employment period and job titles for some of the people we spoke to.
Amazon: Certainly. But we can’t provide any details about their employment due to privacy laws and other considerations.
NYT: Of course! That would be ridiculous, ha ha! Ok, so Armin Zann says he worked at Amazon from [date range] and his job was [such and such]. He talked a bit about how he decided to leave.
Amazon: Let me check on that. [period of time from minutes to several weeks] Well. We have some information about Mr. Zann, but we can’t tell you on the record.
NYT: We would need to be on the record if you’re giving us pertinent information about a source. Otherwise, we would be unable to effectively examine what you said about the person and give them an opportunity to respond and provide additional information. [This would likely require a consultation with editors before making that statement.]
Amazon: Then we are at an impasse. Good day!
Of course, Carney is saying that’s not what would have happened. In his universe, it would have proceeded like:
Amazon: Let me check on that. [period of time from minutes to several weeks] Well. We have some information about Mr. Zann that we can tell you on the record.
NYT: Please do.
Amazon: “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.” [Carney’s initial post]
NYT: That’s pretty serious. Did you call the police?
NYT: Are there “criminal charges against him, or some formal accusation of wrongdoing”? [Baquet’s reply]
NYT: Did he sign a statement agreeing to what you’re alleging?
Amazon: [It’s unclear in what form the admission Amazon alleges came.]
NYT: “[Zann] 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.” [Baquet’s reply]
Amazon: “As for Mr. [Zann], the record quite simply backs up what I wrote. The reason the Times’ reporters didn’t know the circumstances of his departure from Amazon is because they didn’t bother to ask.”  [Carney’s rebuttal]
NYT: “If we had known his status was contested, we would have said so.” [Baquet’s reply]
Amazon: [In a response to a question about Amazon’s decision to use personnel records to rebut accusations from a former employee]: “It is unusual. If The Times had followed normal standards and checked their sources, we might have said, ‘This source may not be credible — here’s why.’” [Times follow-up story today about the conflict.]
Should the NYT be asking every interview subject, company or otherwise, whether every source they quote has a gripe? That’s not how reporting works. It makes sense to verify past employment and validate statements by making sure someone isn’t speaking in isolation, but I can’t imagine what standard Carney is trying to imply should exist that would have led a company like Amazon to reveal this in the course of routine reporting.
Amazon has taken a stand: If you’ve worked at the company and speak publicly about your experience, they will pull your file and discuss your work history openly and without reservation or prior approval. That deserves more looking into.
Glenn Fleishman is a veteran technology journalist. He contributed regularly to the New York Times between 1998 and 2007, and currently writes as a freelancer for the Economist, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, and Macworld. He worked for six months at Amazon from 1996 to 1997, and has no financial stake in the company, nor ever did.
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