Did Jay Carney sleep particularly poorly Sunday evening? Too hot with his socks on, too cold with them off? Did his wheatgrass taste off Monday morning? The grind was perfect, of course—Jay Carney surely owns an excellent juicer—but sometimes the bitterness is just overwhelming, lingers too long. Was that what left such a poor taste in Jay Carney’s mouth? Why did Jay Carney, former White House Press Secretary, current Senior Vice President for Global Corporate Affairs at Amazon, pick Monday of all days to remind the world—or at least the internet—that Amazon can be a harsh place to work?
On Monday morning, Carney took to Medium to attempt to rebut a front page New York Times article that appeared over two months earlier, on August 15th. That story, which was widely read and shared, detailed the competitive and intense workplace environment faced by Amazon’s white collar employees. Carney based his corrective largely on disparaging details about the piece’s authors, Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, and their sources. He pulled up HR records to argue that one source had resigned in disgrace, that another had later blogged (on LinkedIn—is that a thing humans do?) to take responsibility for the hardships she encountered while at Amazon. He accused Kantor of mischaracterizing her intentions to get access. He mentioned “Journalism 101.”
Within two hours Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the Times, responded with a post of his own on Medium, defending the Times piece’s tone, conclusions, and journalistic integrity. Carney fired back later that day to reiterate his main claim: that the Times didn’t act with due diligence by checking with Amazon about internal disciplinary records for its sources. The response is altogether shorter and less about arguing facts—Baquet seemed more than able to parry those accusations—and more about cementing Carney’s desired thread: that the Times was unprofessional. Carney seems to understand very well that in the public court of the internet tone is worth more than details. The exchange may well merit a writeup in the paper itself, or, more likely, on the blog of its Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan.
The question underlying all of this sniping is, "why?" Or more to the point, "why now?" Why would Jay Carney, a man who, I think it’s safe to say, knows his way around a press cycle, draw further attention to an article that negatively portrayed Amazon’s workplace culture?
The Times piece by Kantor and David Streitfeld was significant for highlighting the office environment at a company whose warehouse conditions have been the subject of much previous scrutiny.
At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.”
The article’s strength rests in a succession of quotes from current and former employees that build an image of a company willing to err on the side of cruelty to squeeze the most out of its workforce at every level. Employees report great pride in the work they do, Kantor and Streitfeld note, and often exhibit an almost incredible corporate loyalty. That pride is paired with, indeed it may be an artifact of, long hours, tears and performance reviews that sound significantly similar to self-criticism sessions. Also there is an anecdote Jeff Bezos often tells about making his grandmother cry with the Power of Data.
The environment detailed in the article is significantly similar to other accounts of Amazon’s corporate culture—Brad Stone’s The Everything Store and Gawker’s series of pieces by Hamilton Nolan and others are particularly notable examples. The article also led other Amazon veterans to come forward including, significantly, Amazon Publishing’s Julia Cheiffetz who described being pushed out after taking maternity and sick leave. Part of Baquet’s rebuttal rested on the preponderance and similarity of these accounts.
Amazon saw the article as an attack when it appeared in August—which is not surprising, though the piece’s conclusions are not without nuance. Bezos sent a letter to all Amazon staff the following week, which the Times duly published. (Amazon staff, it bears noting, does not necessarily include Amazon fulfillment center employees or its fleet of drivers, the majority of which are employees of contracted agencies.) In the letter Bezos links to both the Times piece and a contrasting account by a current employee. He writes that the article “claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” He urges employees to come to him with potential conflicts—Bezos is famously open to feedback from the company’s customers and responds to emails sent to his public address, firstname.lastname@example.org. Meanwhile, Jay Carney earned his place in the drone wars bunker by hitting CBS This Morning to emphasize that Amazon “is an incredibly compelling place to work.” Kantor and Streitfeld responded with a piece describing Amazon’s reaction to their article and their process. Everyone—excepting perhaps the Amazon employees imagining the look on Jeff Bezos’ face if they ever actually tried to approach him with complaints—seemed satisfied by late-August. The news cycle rolled on.
Until Monday morning, that is, when Jay Carney carefully uploaded a headshot to Medium and centered it to make sure the knot of his tie was visible. We’re left trying to guess at motivations for what was—whatever the merits of Carney’s criticisms—an odd choice of timing. If the goal was simply an extensive correction, why not come forward in August? Carney writes:
When the story came out, we knew it misrepresented Amazon. Once we could look into the most sensational anecdotes, we realized why. We presented the Times with our findings several weeks ago, hoping they might take action to correct the record. They haven’t, which is why we decided to write about it ourselves.
The hilarious choice of the word “findings” aside, this doesn’t help answer the question of “why now?”
Amazon will release its quarterly earnings report on Thursday. One could make an (admittedly somewhat paranoid) claim that Carney’s timing was an attempt to score points with Amazon’s fans before the latest numbers drop, whether good or bad. The problem with this line of thinking is that Amazon remains, to a remarkable degree, bulletproof in the marketplace. Amazon’s shareholders have been notably unperturbed by years of unprofitability, and it would take very bad news indeed to turn the market away from their significant growth this year.
Then again, the company announced just today that they anticipate bringing on a 100,000 seasonal workers for the holidays, up from 80,000 last year. The timing feels significant. This news is almost certainly meant to influence market reaction to the earnings report. For the Amazon true believer, this week begins to take on a triumphant narrative arc. Carney’s Medium post was read with excitement by many, particularly those in Silicon Valley. His exasperated tone—part of Carney’s success as press secretary lies here—is thrilling. It makes a reader feel as if they know more about journalism than those outdated, old media clowns over at the Grey Lady, who couldn’t even be bothered to fact check. To have that excitement followed by a press release showing an increase in workforce—more is good! 100,000 is a big number that anticipates significant holiday sales!—puts Amazon in a good position for the publication of whatever is in that earnings report.
Carney’s post could also be seen as more inward-facing than out—a lesson that vocal dissenters will have their characters assassinated in public by a guy who used to work in the White House. Carney claims in his first post on Monday that one of the Times’ named sources, Bo Olson, isn’t credible because Olson committed fraud while at the company and resigned when confronted. Baquet contacted Olson, who denies that account. Whatever the truth of the matter, Olson’s personal brand is in rough shape as of this week.
That effort, to tamp down dissent and generally reform the image of Amazon as a poor workplace may have been lent urgency by the recently released Harvard Business Review ranking of CEOs. Bezos would have come first if the rankings were solely determined by financial indicators. But this year executives are also rated on intangibles—environmental, social and governance factors. Bezos was ranked 828th out of 907 executives on those categories, dropping his total ranking down to 87th. Could this have irked Bezos enough that he’s tasked Carney with going on the attack against claims of a poor working environment at Amazon?
Amazon as a company and a culture is not above whims. It could simply be Carney’s whim—or more likely Bezos’—that they continue to pursue efforts to correct what they see as an unethical and biased depiction in the Times. Hell, maybe Carney found a bug leg in his corn flakes and just rolled with the fug. But paired with this week’s rollout of Amazon news, it feels suspiciously like Jay Carney traded shots with the New York Times for something as intangible as narrative momentum. And whether or not you think Carney’s rebuttal has merit, bravado like that is hard not to admire.