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Margaret Sullivan
Margaret Sullivan

The New York Times’ investigation into Amazon’s allegedly “bruising” culture is quickly becoming one of the newspaper’s most talked about stories in recent history, with a record-breaking 5,775 comments on the article as of Thursday morning.

Away from the comment thread, opinions have come in from former employees who don’t think a little workplace competition is a bad thing, and a current Amazon manager who took to LinkedIn to call the piece by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld “blatantly incorrect.” Company CEO Jeff Bezos even stepped into the fray, writing a memo to employees that said “the article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know.”

And now the NYT’s official watchdog is weighing in, too.

Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote a column for the NYT this week in which she points out that the piece seems to be factually accurate, and it did give Amazon “its due in some ways.”

But she goes on to ask the big question: “Does the article, with complete fairness, nail down the reality of life as an Amazon employee?”

She takes issue with parts, like the way the article retold the story of when Bezos made his grandmother cry in an attempt to get her to stop smoking. Bezos reportedly first told the story during a Princeton commencement speech, but the article left out the part where he told graduates that was the moment he learned “it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

“The evidence against Amazon, while powerful, is largely anecdotal, not data-driven,” Sullivan writes. “And anecdotes can be used and interpreted in any number of ways.”

Here’s Sullivan’s conclusion:

“No serious questions (to my knowledge) have arisen about the hard facts. That’s to The Times’s credit. But that may partly be because the article was driven less by irrefutable proof than by generalization and anecdote. For such a damning result, presented with so much drama, that doesn’t seem like quite enough.”

NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet
NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet

She updated the column later, after NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet “let me know that he disagrees entirely with some of my conclusions.”

“I reject the notion that you can report a story like this in any way other than with anecdotes,” Baquet said. “You talk to as many people as possible and you draw conclusions. That’s the only way to approach it.”

Baquet continued to stand by the work when Sullivan asked if it’s fair, then, to draw such major conclusions and display the story so prominently without hard evidence.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The quality of the reporting and writing, and the rich, subtle, sophisticated portrait that the story painted of this major, transformational company warranted that — if not bigger.”

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