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Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

The Washington Post has hired Margaret Sullivan, the former public editor for The New York Times and the person who criticized the paper’s controversial exposé last year of Amazon.

Sullivan, who will work as a media columnist, is another key hire for the Jeff Bezos-owned Post since the billionaire acquired the newspaper in 2013 for $250 million. Bezos has significantly invested in editorial operations and it seems to be paying off. Bloomberg reported in December that 71.6 million people visited the Post’s sites in November, about four percent more than the Times’s 68.8 million visits.

As public editor at the Times, it was Sullivan’s job to represent readers while critiquing the paper’s work. She made news for wading into the controversy over the Times’ coverage of Amazon. Last August, the Times published a report that described Amazon as a “brutal” workplace, an environment where employees were encouraged to “tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high.'”

The story stirred widespread debate, with praise from some parts of the tech industry but condemnations from some current and former Amazon employees, including Bezos. The CEO said he didn’t recognize the company described in the Times’ story and informed employees that if they knew anyone treating colleagues in the way described in the piece to notify the Human Resources department.
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Among Sullivan’s criticisms was how “significant unnamed sourcing” was used in sections to illustrate how Amazon lacked empathy and humanity. The Times reported that it had spoken to employees “who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises,” and said their performances were reviewed before they had fully recovered.

Sullivan also lamented that the story offered too little information about how other companies treat employees.

“Many of Amazon’s techniques and policies are common at other tech companies, and other companies in general,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan’s views were not shared by Dean Baquet, the Times executive editor. Baquet vigorously defended the portrayal of Amazon, writing: “I love this story. I’m extremely proud of it.”

What may have stung the Times’ most about Sullivan’s comments was that it was not the first time she expressed doubts about the paper’s coverage of Amazon. In 2014, Sullivan reviewed how the Times covered the tug-of-war between Amazon and book publishers over control of pricing. Sullivan concluded that some of the Times’ reports were unfair.

Sullivan wrote: “The establishment figures The Times has quoted on this issue, respected and renowned though they are, should have their statements subjected to critical analysis, just as Amazon’s actions should be. The Times has given a lot of ink to one side and — in story choice, tone and display — helped to portray the retailer as a literature-killing bully instead of a hard-nosed business. I would like to see more unemotional exploration of the economic issues.”

So, did a grateful Bezos pull strings with Washington Post editors to get Sullivan hired? Bezos didn’t answer an e-mail inquiry, but Molly Gannon, a spokeswoman for the Post responded to Geekwire’s question with one word.

“No.”

 

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