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New York Times story has Amazon hopping mad

20 October 2015

In an unusually public tussle over a prominent article, a senior executive from Amazon and the top editor of The New York Times clashed on Monday over the details in an article about the internet retailer's work culture.

The debate began early on Monday when Jay Carney, a senior vice president for global corporate affairs at Amazon, posted a 1,300-word essay, accusing The New York Times of omitting information that he said would have undercut an August article that painted a bruising portrait of life as an Amazon employee.

Several hours later, Dean Baquet, NYT executive editor, published his own 1,300-word response to Carney in which he defended the reporting behind the article.

Carney got in the last word for the day with his own shorter response to Baquet's response.

It was the kind of sparring between a newspaper and the subject of an article that once might have taken place in private. Instead, both men, who have access to huge audiences of their own, published their posts on Medium, a site for essays and storytelling that is open to the public.

The spat took place two months after the publication of the article, which, with more than five million page views, is among the paper's most-read pieces of the year. The debate, a spokeswoman for NYT said, prompted a fresh flood of readers to the original article.

Baquet said in an interview that he had responded on Medium because Carney had posted his critique there. ''My view is if someone critiques a story, you owe them a response,'' he said. ''Jay sent me this critique a while back and we set out to try and examine very closely his criticisms, and it took a while. He was within his rights to put it out.''

Carney, he said, is doing his job. ''But I actually think, with respect to them, they don't have a leg to stand on,'' he said. ''It was a very honest investigative piece that stands up to any scrutiny.''

Asked if he plans to continue engaging publicly in other, similar circumstances, Baquet said, ''Yes, yes, yes.''

The original article contained anecdotes about workers enduring withering criticism from their superiors, and others who said they were elbowed out of the company when their performance suffered for various reasons, including illness.

Carney's post, ''What The New York Times Didn't Tell You,'' was a blistering rebuttal. A former White House press secretary, Carney both challenged the credibility of sources in the article and accused the paper of misrepresenting their experience.

His most prominent objection was to a quote from Bo Olson, a former Amazon employee, who said, ''Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.'' Carney said that Olson's brief time at Amazon ended after he had tried to defraud vendors and falsify business records to conceal his actions.

He said Olson admitted what he had done when confronted and resigned immediately.

Carney said that Amazon was in regular contact over a seven-month period with Jodi Kantor, one of the Times reporters who wrote the article, and that she never told the company that they intended to quote Olson. ''Did Kantor's editors at The Times ask her whether Olson might have an axe to grind?'' Carney wrote.

In his response, Baquet wrote that the paper contacted Olson on Monday and that he said he had never been confronted by Amazon with accusations of fraudulent conduct or falsifying records, and did not admit such conduct. Baquet said the paper would have mentioned that Olson's status at the company was contested, had he known.

Baquet said other current and former Amazon employees interviewed for the article recounted similar stories of people crying publicly at the company.

Reached by phone, Olson declined to comment further.

It is rare for Amazon to undertake a full-throated attack on an article critical of the company. Shortly after the article appeared, Jeffrey P Bezos, its chief executive and founder, sent an email to the company's employees saying that he didn't ''recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don't, either''.

It is even more unusual for the company to share information from its personnel files to challenge an article, as it did for Olson and others. ''Amazon wants to rewrite the story by releasing personal details about employees,'' Glenn Fleishman, a freelance journalist who worked at Amazon briefly in the late '90s, wrote on Twitter.

Carney declined to be interviewed. In a statement, he responded to a question about Amazon's decision to use personnel records to rebut accusations from a former employee. ''It is unusual,'' he wrote. ''If The Times had followed normal standards and checked their sources, we might have said, 'This source may not be credible - here's why.' ''

He added, ''If The Times insisted on relying on the source, we would have gone on the record with the reasons why the source might not be credible or what the other side of the story was.''


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