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Amazon PR Boss Blasts New York Times Exposé, Digs Up Dirt on Its Sources (Update)

Amazon's Jay Carney, a former journalist, takes the gloves off.

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Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

It took several months, but Amazon is taking the gloves off in its fight against the New York Times and the paper’s stinging summer report about the e-commerce giant’s work culture.

In a blog post published on Medium on Monday morning, Amazon communications head Jay Carney disputed some facts, highlighted what he views as missing context and dug up details about some of the former Amazon employees quoted in the piece.

Of one, Carney wrote: “[H]is 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.”

The Times piece makes no mention of this fact when quoting the employee saying the now-infamous phrase, “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

“Even with breaking news, journalistic standards would encourage working hard to uncover any bias in a key source,” Carney wrote. “With six months to work on the story, journalistic standards absolutely require it.”

Carney also disputes that another former Amazon employee quoted in the piece was “strafed” in peer reviews, as the Times writers reported.

The employee “received only three pieces of feedback through that tool during her entire time at Amazon,” Carney wrote. “All three included positive feedback on strengths as well as thoughts on areas of improvement. Far from a ‘strafing,’ even the areas for improvement written by her colleagues contained language like, ‘It has been a pleasure working with Elizabeth.'”

A Times spokeswoman didn’t immediately provide comment.

(Update: New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet has issued a lengthy response of his own on, you guessed it, Medium. One of Baquet’s main points: Times reporters talked to more than 100 current and former employees and “patterns emerged” — that is, even if there were some hidden agenda from the sources Carney cited, there were plenty of other people interviewed who had similar experiences. Here’s another about the employee Carney accused of “attempting to defraud vendors,” and it’s a doozy: “[The employee] disputes Amazon’s account of his departure…he said he was never confronted with allegations of personally fraudulent conduct or falsifying records, nor did he admit to that. If there were criminal charges against him, or some formal accusation of wrongdoing, we would certainly consider that.” The former employee at question hasn’t yet responded to Re/code‘s request for comment.)

Carney, a longtime former journalist, joined Amazon earlier this year after a stint as President Obama’s spokesman. Taken together, his post is one of the largest corporate rebukes of a media story in recent memory. It is highly unusual for a major company to publish information about employment records of former employees, and I’ve asked Amazon for comment on their tactics. (Update: They are declining to comment further.)

The Times story, written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, was a hit practically from the moment it was published on a Saturday morning in August. The feature sparked a national debate about work-life balance and raised questions about how sustainable Amazon’s hard-charging culture is. Times editors have said the article generated the most reader comments in the paper’s history, and executive editor Dean Baquet vowed at a recent Code/Media event to “do as many ‘Amazons’ as possible.”

There is no doubt that Amazon has a reputation as a challenging place to work, with many former employees coming out of the woodwork to tell their own trying tales of working there. But there’s also a significant faction of current and former Amazonians who felt as though the Times cherry-picked negative anecdotes to tell a story that these people felt lacked nuance and context. Big names in Silicon Valley pulled this thread from the start and continued in the wake of Carney’s response.

Update: Carney has published a response to Baquet’s response about Carney’s initial response. “The bottom line is the New York Times chose not to fact-check or vet its most important on-the-record sources” is the gist of his counter-argument.

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