One would think that old saw didn't apply in the digital age. Everyone is a publisher now, right?
Wrong. Case in point:
About two months ago, the New York Times published a highly negative story about Amazon's work culture. Among other things, it reported it was common for Amazon employees to be so stressed out they cried at their desks.
That prompted Jeff Bezos, the company's CEO, to tell his employees he didn't recognize the company the paper described and hoped they didn't either. And his public relations team, led by Jay Carney fresh from a stint as White House spokesman, did its best to handle the second-day stories that inevitably appeared.
Not surprisingly, a brouhaha of epic proportions ensued, with claims and counterclaims flying back and forth between Amazon supporters and critics, including its own employees.
The paper's public editor even put her own oar into the churning waters in a column gently criticizing the paper for basing its story on largely anecdotal evidence. That column ignited an unusual public disagreement with the paper's executive editor who rejected "the notion that you can report a story like this in any way other than with anecdotes."
And so the story lay until yesterday when Mr. Carney published a 1,300 word essay on the website Medium challenging the paper's reporting. Most damning, Carney claimed the paper's most vivid anecdote about employees crying at their desks came from an employee who "had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records." According to Carney when the employee was confronted with the evidence, "he admitted it and resigned immediately."
Within hours, the Times' executive editor Dean Baquet published his own 1,300-word rebuttal in Medium, reiterating his support for the article and saying that the employee who supposedly resigned because of misdeeds denies it ever happened.
I hesitate to say Carney had the last word because this could go on forever. But he published a brief response to the Times' response. "The bottom line is the New York Times chose not to fact-check or vet its most important on-the-record sources," he wrote in Medium. "When an anecdote or quote is too good to check, it’s usually too good to be true."
So who won?
Not Amazon. All it succeeded in doing is to call more attention to the Times' original story. I say this from experience. I once wrote a letter to the editor of BusinessWeek challenging a negative story about AT&T. My letter was even longer than the original article. It made the company's supporters feel better, but I doubt it changed any minds. Even though the facts were on our side.
In an argument between corporations and the media, it's the rare company that can come out on top.
In his rebuttal, the Times' executive editor acknowledged that he and Carney had been exchanging email about the story. Since it took only three hours for the Times to issue that rebuttal, it's likely Carney had already laid out his case in that email exchange, including that the employee who had made the most graphic accusations had previously been dismissed for cause and had an axe to grind.
That the Times' rebuttal accepted the employee's word with little or no fact-checking seems to buttress Carney's principal complaint. But coming from Amazon, it rings hollow.
A smarter move for Amazon would have been to bring the complaint to a respected third party, like the Poynter Institute or the Columbia Journalism School.
Instead, Amazon gave the story legs. The Amazon executive suite may feel better, but it's hardly cause for high-fives.