The whole truth about The New York Times – Amazon feud

Image: Walter McBride/Corbis via Mashable

Two months after The New York Times‘ devastating takedown of Amazon’s culture, Amazon fired back. Where’s the whole truth here? There is none. Because by definition, stories always leave out more than they include.

As briefly as possible, here’s what happened. On August 15, the Times wrote about Amazon’s “bruising workplace.” Jeff Bezos emailed his employees a non-denial denial of the story. Two months passed. Amazon PR head (and former Obama press secretary) Jay Carney ripped the article in a post on Medium. The executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, responded. Carney rebutted. Finally — well, finally is a word I can’t really use here, but anyway, two other Times reporters published a story about the fight.

As I attempted to retrieve the truth from this food fight, this is what became clear:

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@jbernoff”]Everyone chooses facts that support their story. There is no “whole truth.”[/tweetthis]

The Times reporters spent six months talking to employees. They formed an opinion. Then they posted facts and quotes to support that opinion. That is journalism, and it is not evil, but it is not and cannot ever be “balanced.”

Amazon runs a company where people work hard. Some would call the culture abusive, others would say this is normal hypercompetitive startup culture on a grand scale. Its PR spins this as a positive. This is not evil, it is normal corporate advocacy.

Some examples:

Carney (Amazon): [W]e were repeatedly assured that this would be a nuanced story that dove into what makes Amazon an exciting and fun place to be, not just a demanding place to work. [Your reporter’s email said that] this story will express that Amazon has a somewhat counterintuitive theory of management that really works, in both a results-oriented way and there is evidence that what makes people really happy in the workplace is productivity, responsibility and accomplishment . . .

Baquet (Times): The topics discussed relatively early on included Amazon’s reputation as a difficult place to work, social cohesion, complaints of a culture of criticism and other worker concerns that were emerging from the reporting. . . you said to me that you always assumed this was going to be a tough story, so it is hard to accept that Amazon was expecting otherwise.

The whole truth: Really, a former press secretary is shocked — shocked — that reporters may be planning a critical story? Amazon is not this naive. While the reporters may have started out with a more balanced narrative, they ended up following what they saw as a pattern, and their editors likely encouraged this. This should surprise no one. News flash: Reporters choose facts to report, and companies may not like them.

On the specifics of one employee:

Carney: Here’s what the story didn’t tell you about Mr. Olson [the employee who said “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”]: his brief tenure at Amazon ended after an investigation revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records. When confronted with the evidence, he admitted it and resigned immediately.

Baquet: . . . he said he was never confronted with allegations of personally fraudulent conduct or falsifying records, nor did he admit to that.”

The whole truth: When an employee resigns under a cloud, there are always two versions of the truth. It is possible that Mr. Olsen behaved unethically. It is possible that working at Amazon makes people cry. In fact, it’s quite plausible that both are true.

As you read these accounts, here’s what to remember.

There is no whole truth. There are millions of facts and events in every conflict and you cannot know all of them.

Everyone tells stories. Stories are what we remember. Stories include selected facts woven together in a compelling way. They leave out far more than they include.

When you read two competing stories, don’t start by taking sides. Ask what possible truth could account for the facts in both stories. Then you’ll be on the path to seeing what others are missing.

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  2. I’ve been enjoying your blog, but this article (or at least the first have of it) kinda proposes a bullshit of its own.

    Your usage of “whole truth” (that you then write doesn’t exist) and placing of journalistic “balance” in scare quotes seem like your setting up a strawman that the reader is seeking a pure, comprehensive objective reality. Which you then knock down by saying individuals are acting in their own interest in the stories they convey.

    But, using your method described at the end of the post, there can exist both a whole truth and individual parties who cherry pick pieces of it. Recognizing how journalism and corporate PR works is part of the whole truth, as well as recognizing our role agents in a democratic and consumer system (and how parties seek to manipulate, for good and bad, that agency).

    Anyways, just wanted to say I worried your saying there is no whole truth leaned towards cynical nihilism. Rather I think you should say there is a whole truth that is too all-encompassing for us to ever know, but it’s the enlightened search that takes us beyond the bullshit.

    Anyways, sorry that got more mystical than I expected. Keep up the writing!

  3. What’s surprising and significant in this whole story – in my opinion – is that no one has yet sued anyone else. This in itself would indicate some level of collusion between the 2 parties for it has certainly generated a lot of PR for both 🙂