‘Inside Amazon,’ but not fully in context

An Amazon warehouse in Madrid

The New York Times has taken considerable flak, much from its own public editor, for relying too heavily on anonymous sources in its stories. A standard rationale for unattributed quotes—that sources fear retribution from employers—is only sporadically convincing. One obvious exception, however, would seem to be when investigating the ruthlessness of a company and its work environment.

A front-page report in last Sunday’s Times on Amazon’s “bruising workplace” depended on granting anonymity to many current and former employees in order to penetrate the notoriously secretive company. That seems unavoidable. But once that question is settled, another follows: How reliably can anecdotal evidence reveal the conditions and sentiments within a massive institution? (The Times didn’t assert that Amazon is just an occasionally bruising place to work.) Is it possible to find sources who are not among the disaffected, and thus avoid a skewed representation?   

These are basic challenges to investigative journalism. The alternative to less-than-ideal reporting methods shouldn’t be an abandoned story. Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld say they interviewed more than 100 past and present Amazon employees—impressive legwork that produced a worrisome depiction of the world’s largest retailer. Yet even 100 voices offer little more than a whisper within a company of many thousands, and certainly not a random sample. For some readers, those testimonials amount to more of a red flag than a declarative statement about what it’s like to work at Amazon. Perhaps that’s all you can ask of anecdote-driven journalism when it shines light on a corporate powerhouse that shuns virtually all outside inquiry.

Amazon has a “singular way of working,” announced the first sentence of the Times story. Thus, from the outset, the paper accepted the challenge to demonstrate why the retailer is one of a kind, not simply part of an ultra-competitive tech culture, analogous to, say, Microsoft, another Seattle-based giant. If Amazon’s problems exist elsewhere, that doesn’t exonerate wrongdoing, of course, but it adds perspective. Given the article’s assertion, it was surprising when Kantor retweeted this observation from another Times reporter on Sunday:

 

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With reader comments creeping toward 6,000, the Amazon story is now the most commented-on nytimes.com post, surpassing a 2013 Op-Ed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Like the sources in the story, those comments—many claiming to be from people who’ve worked at Amazon—are candid, provocative, numerous, and yet still only a self-selecting sample. In a mixed review, Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan noted that “the evidence against Amazon, while powerful, is largely anecdotal, not data-driven. And anecdotes can be used and interpreted in any number of ways.” Barring maybe the acquisition of internal reports, making data requisite for reporting is probably unlikely. And data can be used and interpreted in any number of ways, too.

CJR invited Kantor and Streitfeld to discuss their reporting strategy for collecting sources, but neither responded to repeated requests. Kantor, a former Arts & Leisure editor, is best known for a 2012 book on the Obamas’ marriage while in the White House. Streitfeld contributed to the Times team that won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting on business practices at tech companies, namely Apple. Last year, he reported on the “ruthlessly efficient” book publishing practices at Amazon (as one of his sources put it).

One subtle moment of editorial commentary stood out in Kantor and Streitfeld’s piece: “For all of the employees who are edged out, many others flee, exhausted or unwilling to further endure the hardships for the cause of delivering swim goggles and rolls of Scotch tape to customers just a little quicker.” Interpreted one way, Kantor and Streitfeld are saying that the commercial purpose of Amazon is too trivial to inspire exceptional commitment. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, the Times seems dismissive of the fact that demanding workplaces aren’t for everyone, be it at a law firm, sports team, military unit, or even a newspaper. A certain group of people choose to work in these types of workplaces for whatever individual reward they attain. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his followers would not reduce their mission to hustling miscellanea more efficiently.  

Many have pounced on the treatment of a scene from Bezos’s childhood, when he brought his grandmother to tears by calculating the years of her life she’d lost from smoking. The Times left off in the middle of that story, as Bezos told it in a commencement speech, when his grandfather admonished the 9-year-old for being clever rather than kind. It was either a careless mistake by the paper, or a reflection of not so much factual error, but selective omission, which then raises doubt about the sources they selected.

There have already been several Times follow-up stories, addressing the negative response from Bezos and his employees, the reaction from readers, and a front-page story yesterday on the “brutal competition” endemic to corporate America. That article reads in some places almost like a partial retraction, or at least a pointed backpeddling:

 

“The account appeared to put Amazon at odds with recent workplace trends, but the reality, experts say, is not nearly so neat: Grueling competition remains perhaps the defining feature of the upper echelon in today’s white-collar workplace.”

 

For readers, the Times description of Amazon’s “singular way of working” was indeed not looking so neat anymore.

But Kantor and Streitfeld painted Amazon as a sizable step beyond having rigorous standards.  Included with tales of workers “weeping” at their desk or engaged in petty competitiveness are allegations of gender bias and appalling stories of family illness or medical emergencies being met with indifference or hostility. That sort of anecdote demands publicity regardless of whether it’s the company norm, but futher explanation by the Times as to why these victims didn’t sue or call attention to it previously would have helped. In addition to saying that “such responses to employees’ crises were ‘not our policy or practice,’” Amazon provided the Times with a top recruit who described “the strong support” she got while her husband battled cancer. It’s a unique form of insult to respond to somebody being brutalized by highlighting somebody who wasn’t.

One of the more dubious rebuttals to the Times story came from Jay Carney, the former Time reporter and Obama Administration press secretary, who five months ago became Amazon’s senior vice president for global corporate affairs. Appearing on CBS “This Morning,” Carney said, “I think the fundamental flaw in the story is the suggestion that any company that had the kind of culture that The New York Times wrote about … could survive and thrive in today’s marketplace.”

It would be easier to understand Carney if he addressed specific critiques within that “kind of culture.” If he’s responding at least in part to gender bias, then he should note that, historically, discrimination doesn’t preclude profitability. If he’s responding to unreasonable productivity demands, he should note that banks can recruit highly talented, enthusiastic students then work them to death.

The Times deserves credit for exposing cautionary tales within a big, secretive company, which also serve as a cautionary note about the entire industry. But being forthcoming about the context of those insights would benefit from caution, too.

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Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt