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Amazon PR head says New York Times ignored 'Journalism 101' in harsh exposé

Two months after The New York Times published an exposé of harsh working practices at Amazon, senior vice president of corporate affairs Jay Carney has accused the paper of sloppy and incomplete reporting. In a post on Medium, Carney — who served as White House press secretary before joining Amazon earlier this year — says the piece was missing crucial evidence that could have undercut its conclusions, making the story "a lot less sensational, a lot more balanced," and "a lot more boring."

Carney alleges that some of the Times report's most memorable anecdotes were published without sufficient fact-checking. His primary example is a quote saying that "nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk," delivered by former employee Bo Olson. Carney says Olson should have been considered a biased source — he allegedly left after admitting to attempted fraud and falsifying business records. In another case, he says an employee described being "strafed" with negative anonymous reports actually only received three notes, which "included positive feedback."

"[Co-author Jodi] 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," writes Carney, despite ongoing communication with Amazon over a period of several months. He says that Amazon raised the issues described in today's post "several weeks ago," going public with them after not getting a correction.

"When there are two sides of a story, a reader deserves to know them both."

The piece's authors have said they based their reporting on interviews with over 100 current and former Amazon employees. The resulting report describes a culture of relentless competition and draconian oversight, complete with firing quotas and a disregard for employees' health problems — one employee, for example, was allegedly sent on a business trip the day after a miscarriage, an anecdote that isn't mentioned in Carney's piece.

The examples Carney's given here allow for some ambiguity. One employee, for instance, recalls being given a brutal face-to-face performance review followed by a promotion. While Carney says the man got a highly positive written review, that doesn't necessarily contradict the idea behind the anecdote: that even the highest praise at Amazon can be accompanied by harsh put-downs.

But this may still be the most specific and official condemnation we've seen so far. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has previously said that the article "doesn't describe the Amazon I know," and one employee published a detailed rebuttal shortly after publication. But at that point, Carney said that the company hadn't been able to check the accuracy of individual anecdotes. Today's piece, by contrast, outright accuses the Times of not following "Journalism 101" standards. "When there are two sides of a story, a reader deserves to know them both," writes Carney. "Why did the Times choose not to follow standard practice here?"

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet soon responded to the complaints, including the claim that Olson resigned because of a fraud attempt. Olson "said he was never confronted with allegations of personally fraudulent conduct or falsifying records, nor did he admit to that," writes Baquet. "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 then fired back in another Medium post. "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," the response reads. "Falling back on the claim that [the authors] 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."

Update October 19th 2:00PM ET: Added statement from Dean Baquet.

Update October 19th 3:30PM ET: Added second statement from Jay Carney.