Extremely Public Relations

Amazon has posted an aggressive response to the “everyone at Amazon is miserable but also paid well but also crying all the time” story in the New York Times. That story was published 64 days ago, which, according to my proprietary productivity algorithm, works out to about 21 words per day. This will presumably be addressed in Jay Carney’s next performance review. (Manager’s notes: “Although a second post on the same day was a step in the right direction!”)

There are two particularly effective parts of the post. One is the revelation that the source of the story’s most memorable quote — “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk” — was provided by a former employee that had, according to Amazon, “attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records.” Questions about whether or not Amazon should discuss personnel matters like this are at least somewhat offset by this ex-employee’s choice to publicly engage the company in the Times. Less clear is the necessity, later, to discuss the particulars of an employee’s performance review and promotion in additional detail:

Chris Brucia, who recalls how he was berated in his performance review before being promoted, also was given a written review. Had the Times asked about this, we would have shared what it said. “Overall,” the document reads, “you did an outstanding job this past performance year.” Mr. Brucia was given exceptionally high ratings and then promoted to a senior position.

This doesn’t contradict the report at all: Brucia’s claim that he was berated in his performance review before getting a promotion is answered by pointing out the existence of a separate, written review that contains a positive sentence. It is insinuation about character constructed as a rebuttal. The Times, much more quickly than Amazon, disputed both that account and the terms of the former ex-employee’s departure.

The other section that will garner the most sympathy for Amazon is probably the email sent to Amazon by reporter Jodi Kantor in which she says she would like to “convey that this story will express that Amazon has a somewhat counterintuitive theory of management that really works,” among other assuring things. The Times, in its response-to-the-response, characterized this differently than Amazon as well, and I think its defense — that Amazon “always assumed this was going to be a tough story” — is both a fair assessment and useless in countering the queasy impression given by the email.

Then again, I’m sympathetic to, or at least familiar with, her position. It’s a common one: You’re writing a story about a powerful company, which is giving you some degree of access; the company gets a sense that the piece won’t paint a purely positive picture of everything the company is doing; the PR person, whose job it is to manage the company’s representation in media, threatens to back out or actively work against you; you try to assure them, without lying, that you may be critical but that you’ll be fair. There’s a subtle but strong case against access journalism contained in these types of emails, particularly as publications lose the leverage they once had in their unique and captive audiences. They’re interactions between an individual intent on telling stories that a company wouldn’t tell about itself and a representative of that company charged with making sure that doesn’t happen. What’s difficult about these particular emails is embedded in sender and recipient. Amazon is clearly the more powerful party and is approached as such, with a sort of ends-justify-the-means utility. This might not square with most readers’ ideas of what should motivate a newspaper story about a company they see as vaguely large and problematic but immediately useful. It’s hard to ignore, however, that the man on the other side of the exchanges is a former White House press secretary.

Anyway. This story and its aftermath represent a bit of a trap, particularly in discussions on Twitter: If you think the original story contained both valuable information and flaws, your default position is to go to bat for the Times; if you read this story as a portrait of a tough workplace written to cast it in the worst possible light, but acknowledge that it contained some worrying anecdotes, then your tendency will be to defend Amazon.

But these too reveal themselves as proxy positions. It’s not story versus story, or publication versus tech company. It’s media versus tech. That’s the context within which this story was conceived, written, read and disputed. Carney engages with this idea directly:

In any story, there are matters of opinion and there are issues of fact. And context is critical. Journalism 101 instructs that facts should be checked and sources should be vetted. When there are two sides of a story, a reader deserves to know them both. Why did the Times choose not to follow standard practice here?

Here we have the flack defining “standard practice” for journalism and claiming that the New York Times has not followed it. The post concludes with a passage seemingly intended to inoculate readers against all future reporting by the paper (or anyone else!):

The Times got attention for their story, but in the process they did a disservice to readers, who deserve better. The next time you see a sensationalistic quote in the Times like “nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk”, you might wonder whether there’s a crucial piece of context or backstory missing — like admission of fraud — and whether the Times somehow decided it just wasn’t important to check.

Here the trap reveals itself again. It’s tempting to say, hey, Jay Carney, shut up, you’re a highly paid PR person representing a giant retail company after a damaging story, you’re the last person who should be Telling Us How Journalism Is And Should Be. Or to say, in the spirit of his own post, just stick to the facts. But then you find yourself defending… not questioning stories? A particular reporter that you don’t know, or a company that you don’t work at? Or an entire industry, because you’re loyal to it? Or because you share a common enemy?

Allow me some anecdotal observations from the middle of a strange conflict. In recent years, but in the last year especially, the public relationship between what we can vaguely describe as “tech” and loosely define as the news “media” seems to have deteriorated dramatically. Some journalists rightly recognize that companies like Amazon are fast becoming the most important and powerful companies in the world, and their response is to treat reporting on them and criticizing them as an urgent project of our time. This is a predictable development and arguably a good one: If the role of a reporter is to uncover truthful stories about powerful people or organizations that are motivated to hide or minimize them, and that play major roles in readers’ daily lives, then what worthier subject than an Amazon or a Google? At the same time, journalists have developed a more personally antagonistic relationship with tech companies as their own companies and professions entered into their direct competition. Amazon is aligned with an axis of companies that regard, in theory and in practice, media distribution models as inefficient and out of date. These companies have demonstrated their correctness through the market, which is good enough for them: Amazon is winning against traditional book publishers; online publishers are either necessarily working with or being quickly marginalized by platforms like Facebook.

The rise of these platforms has corresponded with chaos and decline and confusion in the industry that covers them. These companies are not just subjects but business partners and, ultimately, rivals; this conflict has corresponded with and perhaps followed from voluntary but necessary partnerships. We engage them not just at eye level but at every other level, too. To pretend that we’re collectively and individually above this is ridiculous.

Meanwhile, perhaps sensing this attitude, tech companies have become impatient with the press as it exists today. A press it no longer needs as much to “tell its story.” And a press which of course, as always, produces a lot of garbage alongside the work it’s more proud of. Consider this Medium (lol again!) post from Blake Ross, former Director of Product at Facebook, about the failure to do some fairly straightforward reporting on the herbal supplement implicated in reports on Lamar Odom’s recent hospitalization. He matched an old domain registration with some newer ones, which led him to some email addresses, which led him to someone at least worth asking about selling the pills. He shows his work. It’s embarrassing for every publication mentioned, evidence of both lazy aggregation and, probably, coverage produced out of need to have something on the site rather than the desire to advance a story.

But the stated lessons of the post are fascinating. It starts:

One of the most useful lessons I learned from working at Facebook had nothing to do with technology: Doubt the media. Always doubt the media. Many journalists are superb, but certain reporters would publish plainly inaccurate information about our products on a regular basis. And if they got our tech wrong, what were they getting wrong in that science story? That war piece?

I know the media’s coverage of Facebook, its partner-competitor-savior-killer, must be frustrating from to read from the inside, and that it is quite often wrong; I’ve spoken at length with people who work there, whose grievances are specific and sometimes sympathetic but which, of course, are broadly and obviously remedied by the company’s continued dominance (which is one reason they’re so rarely articulated in public). I also know that a lot of this poor coverage results from uncomfortable stories that attempt to balance limited access with a desire to say something new.

But this post takes us to a strange place by the end:

That is, in fact, the entire point of this post: Don’t outsource your thinking. Not to the government, not to the media, not to me. Confront the world skeptically, particularly in realms like supplements, where organizations we lean on for oversight may sometimes abdicate their responsibility. Educate yourself until alarm bells ring in your mind when you read observation masquerading as journalism. We are lucky to live in a time when we are all so empowered.

Yes, be skeptical. Of course! This has always been true, and it’s hard to disagree with, just as it’s hard to disagree with Jay Carney when he says we shouldn’t take quotations as perfectly representative of the truth just because the appear in the New York Times. This is a healthy reflexive response to new information — journalistic, even. It’s the kind of mindset that might also lead someone to question the public proclamations of a Facebook or an Amazon. It is a case for reporting made against the industry that purports to do it, wielded by people whose interests are, or have been, clearly aligned against it. “We are lucky to live in a time when we are all so empowered” is held forth alongside a characterization of the media as just another dumb ill-incentivized power motivated by its own perpetuation, like the government. (Or, as it does not say, a dominant tech company.)

It’s a disorienting state of affairs! Perhaps it will become clearer as the tech industry becomes more vocal and thorough in its dismissal of the press, and as the press splits between a more compliant, successful and captured component and an increasingly marginalized and aggressive one. The emergence of a more purely oppositional press might preclude the sort of muddiness captured in Kantor’s email — this necessity to both work with and possibly against the interests of your powerful subjects. A press that has been forced to give up all the benefits of access — a press more narrowly interested in alternative narratives — would be easier to get behind and harder to attack. It would also be a lot smaller, and I doubt it would make much money. But who knows! Maybe it’ll look so unfamiliar we won’t recognize it for a while. These are the kinds of problems that don’t so much get solved as they get reasoned out of existence.

In any case, an Amazon story written with no access at all might result in a more straightforward debate: Amazon would dispute the Times account, and vice-versa, and so on, and it would at least be clear who is speaking, and what about. Any denouncement of the entire reporting project would in that context seem much more clearly motivated. Carney couldn’t cry betrayal. The Times could push back against the pushing-back without getting sidetracked by existential issues.

But maybe it’s all a bit bigger than that. There’s blood in the water. Tech knows it’s winning. It no longer seems unreasonable to suggest that the press, as it exists today, could be demolished and replaced with something very different. Tech will become bolder in its denouncements of the preexisting press; the press will return the favor, maybe. Or just clown itself to an early grave! For the time being, the market favors one outcome; the networks through which it will come to pass resemble this market; the means of production blah blah, attention, something. Every dispute over the particulars of a news story, or the way it is distributed, eventually arrives here, in this big enormous mess.

And maybe it’s all just simpler than that, too. The most illuminating comment on the Amazon affair came from Hacker News, which, as a meeting place for tech workers, is generally skeptical of tech coverage and the media in general.

It’s actually weird to see a company firing back this publicly, releasing performance data (no matter if positive or negative) on previous employees, and it all being posted not by the CEO or a HR VP, but by the head of PR.

Edit: Not only it smells of whitewashing, but it also looks deceptive.

Here we have distrust of Amazon. But the writer, not being a journalist, doesn’t default to a defense of the original story, or of the Times, or of the media. We end up somewhere else completely:

And PR? Seriously? Not only it’s a sleazy piece, but Amazon chose the worst possible position to convey the message. Get some engineer, accountant, designer, heck, get the HR intern who just joined 2 weeks ago to talk about this.

It would have more credibility than a PR person who’s been in the company for less than one year.

This is tech’s trump card: A rejection of the stories it explicitly tells about itself are still an endorsement of the stories told by its success. (This is an especially powerful effect with the industry in a state of constant growth — it seems to have the whole world in front of it.)

See also this response health-technology startup Theranos posted after a harsh Wall Street Journal story:

The sources relied on in the article today were never in a position to understand Theranos’ technology and know nothing about the processes currently employed by the company. We are disappointed that, in an effort to make its story more dramatic, this reporter relied only on the views of four “anonymous” disgruntled former employees, competitors and their allies, instead of reaching out to many of the scientific, health care and business leaders who have actually seen, tested, used and examined our breakthrough technologies.

This, again, doesn’t dwell on the specifics of the story for long before suggesting that the entire project was doomed from the beginning. (The journo/VC response to this much narrower and weirder story can be observed in part here.) If only we’d heard from an engineer, a keeper of facts, a custodian of objective reality.

Or as Erik Hinton put more concisely:

Tech lords aren’t concerned about protecting their image. They want journalists to give up their control of ontology, their model of truth.

— Rose Ghoul’d Erik (@erikhinton) October 19, 2015

@erikhinton They need truth to be some quantified externality, meted out by data, fit, predicted and manicured by their code.

— Rose Ghoul’d Erik (@erikhinton) October 19, 2015

Perhaps this is an over-broad diagnosis, but it seems worth nudging out into the open. Consider: The old moguls bought newspapers (some still do). But now I’d argue there’s no need. Why buy the media when you can simply become its context, its location, and its system of incentives? The users will take care of the rest.