In the not-so-distant past, if the New York Times published a scathing exposé of a company like Amazon, the aggrieved party would have little recourse, apart from writing a strongly worded letter to the editor, or issuing a press release that few people would ever read. But today’s media landscape is a far more level playing field, and Amazon has taken full advantage of that to fire a rifle shot at the Times.
Instead of a letter to the editor, Amazon (AMZN) spokesman Jay Carney wrote a lengthy response to a recent Times story on Medium, the publishing platform run by Twitter co-founder and former CEO Evan Williams. Amazon did this despite the fact that it has a website that probably gets hundreds of millions of visitors daily.
And what did the New York Times do? Editor-in-chief Dean Baquet wrote a lengthy rebuttal of Carney’s post and also published it on Medium, despite the fact that the Times is one of the worlds most powerful media entities (a note on the NYT’s corporate site merely included a link to the Medium post).
Everyone has a platform now
If nothing else, this is a fascinating example of how much the tables have turned for a traditional media outlet like the Times. Instead of the “paper of record,” with almost omniscient status when it comes to reporting, it is reduced to arguing with the subject of a story in a blog post on someone else’s website.
Whether you see this as a good thing or a bad thing depends a lot on what you think the purpose of the media is. Is it to tell powerful and engaging stories about injustice—or perceived injustice—like the Times did with its original Amazon story? Or is it to somehow arrive at the capital “T” truth about an issue? If it’s the latter, then there is little to lose and everything to be gained by what we are seeing now.
In case you missed the original brouhaha, the Times published a long story about the difficult work environment at Amazon. It talked about how employees routinely break down and cry because of the workload and unpleasant job reviews, how new mothers are treated unfairly even when they are working hard, and how anonymous feedback mechanisms within the company are used to torment and attack people.
In his response, Carney describes how one of the story’s most powerful anecdotes—from an employee who said that he often saw many people crying at their desks—came from someone who Amazon accused of fraud and ultimately pushed out. Not perhaps the most objective of sources for a story about a company.
Spin control or fact-checking?
Carney also provides an excerpt from an email that reporter Jodi Kantor sent to the company, in which she talked about how the story was not meant to be a hatchet job, and that’s why the Times was working so closely with the company on it. It seems obvious that Amazon felt somewhat betrayed by this kind of “bait and switch” approach. Carney, a former White House press secretary and former reporter for Time (a sister publication to Fortune) also provides information from the personnel reviews of some of the employees quoted in the story, to show that they were not treated as unfairly as they claimed.
For his part, Baquet says Amazon should have known that the story would be critical, but that ultimately he thinks it was fair. He says the paper’s source denied ever being told about fraud allegations, and adds that nothing in what Carney wrote disproves the central thesis of the NYT story — that Amazon takes an uncompromising approach to its workforce.
Reaction to this back and forth is all over the map. Amazon critics and NYT supporters dismiss Carney’s response as typical corporate “spin doctoring,” and note that the company is clearly ethically compromised, because it publicized personal details from its employees’ work files to buttress its argument. Some skeptics even argued that the company’s main purpose in writing the post was simply to scare other employees into not co-operating with future pieces about Amazon.
Transparency is better
Others, however, saw some of the company’s criticisms as valid, including pinning much of the piece on a source whose motivation was questionable (although the paper may not have known that). Promising to work with a company in an attempt to convince them a story will be more favorable to their interests—when a reporter knows full well that it won’t—might also be seen as duplicitous, although newspapers often do this. And the NYT has been criticized before for its unbalanced approach to covering Amazon.
Carney has since responded to Baquet’s rebuttal, by saying that despite whatever else the NYT story did, it ran with comments from critical employees and ex-employees because it fell into the “too good to check” trap.
Regardless of where you come down on these issues, it’s fascinating to see all of this play out in public, where anyone can see it. They may be completely unlike each other in every other way, but both the New York Times (NYT) and Amazon hate airing their dirty laundry (and even their clean laundry in some cases) in public. The fact that both have to some extent been forced or convinced to do so anyway is remarkable.
The result could be dismissed as spin on both sides—spin about the reality of Amazon’s workplace on one side, and spin about the accuracy and high-mindedness of Times journalism on the other. But at least we can see it happening and judge for ourselves whom to believe. And meanwhile, Medium’s reputation as the go-to platform for public statements about important topics gets another significant boost.