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In January, 2007, Barack Obama posted a video to his Web site revealing that he was serious about running for President. His choice of venue was notable. Obama was only the second major candidate to form a Presidential exploratory committee; the previous month, John Edwards had announced the formation of his own committee from the yard of a home that had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. After Obama’s declaration, an editor at Time magazine wrote in a blog post, “My first impression is that he’s smart to do it this way rather than … on Oprah or some other contrived venue.” The implication was that the clip on Obama’s own Web site was more natural and spontaneous-seeming than an announcement on a major TV program.
The writer of that post was named Jay Carney, and, if the past several years are any indication, he has only become more enthusiastic about the potential that digital media offers to important people to directly disseminate, and thus control, their own messages. In 2011, Carney became President Obama’s press secretary, and during his three-year tenure in that post he and his colleagues used social media to pull off a remarkable trick: giving the Obama Administration a reputation among the public for openness while at the same time allowing reporters precious little access to the White House. On Instagram and other media platforms, Obama’s team published candid-seeming images and messages that cast the President as authentic and down to earth—playing by the pool with one of his daughters; meeting a young cancer patient; tweeting about the child of someone who died for lack of health-insurance coverage.
Meanwhile, in 2013, dozens of major outlets complained to Carney, in a hand-delivered letter, about “the troubling breadth of the restrictions placed upon newsgathering by the White House to record governmental activity of undisputed and wide public interest.” The letter protested, in particular, the Obama Administration’s practice of barring photojournalists from capturing events that were deemed “private,” and then using its own employees to shoot the same events—among them, meetings with the activist Malala Yousafzai, with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and with Hillary Clinton, who had by then left her post as Secretary of State—and share them on social-media channels. “You are, in effect, replacing independent photojournalism with visual press releases,” the letter read.
In 2014, Carney left his post at the White House, and in the spring of this year he joined Amazon.com as the senior vice-president of worldwide corporate communications, charged with making comments to top press outlets and shaping Amazon’s communications plan. On Monday, he posted an unorthodox piece on the Web site Medium, in which he questioned the credibility of several sources in a Times article, published in August, about Amazon’s challenging workplace culture. (A disclosure: I have a short-term contract doing some editing for Medium.) In the article, for which the reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld talked to more than a hundred current and former Amazon employees, the company’s culture is described as “bruising.” A former marketing employee named Bo Olson told Kantor and Streitfeld, “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
In his rebuttal, Carney writes that the article “misrepresented Amazon,” and takes the unusual approach of attempting to discredit a small number of the workers with whom Kantor and Streitfeld spoke, in part by referring to those individuals’ employment records at Amazon. The most damning detail by far is Carney’s description of Olson, who he describes as having left the company “after an investigation revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records.”
Within hours, the Times’s top editor, Dean Baquet, had responded to Carney’s post—not on the newspaper’s own Web site, as one might expect, but on Medium. (Baquet was later interviewed for a Times article about the back-and-forth.) Baquet defended the original article, pointing out that Carney hadn’t pointed out any inaccuracies, and writing that Olson had, on Monday, told the Times that “he was never confronted with allegations of personally fraudulent conduct or falsifying records.” (Olson also declined to comment for the Times follow-up article; he didn’t respond to a Facebook message that I sent him.) Carney, not one to forfeit the last word, then responded to Baquet in a follow-up post.
Carney is one of several high-profile D.C. operatives who have gone to work in the tech sector in recent years.* In 2014, the car service Uber hired David Plouffe, who had previously run Obama’s 2008 campaign and later worked in his Administration. For tech companies, the most obvious benefit of hiring from the White House is the possibility that the new employees’ expertise and connections will help them win regulatory battles. But Carney’s piece indicates that he is bringing to Amazon another aspect of his experience both at the White House and as a journalist: his knack for coming across as transparent and concerned with the truth, even as he bypasses traditional journalism operations by using Internet platforms that allow him to put forth his own narrative. He even seems to be adapting some of the tricks from his White House playbook—using a conversational style, as in Obama’s tweets, and insider details, as in the White House photos posted to Instagram and elsewhere, to create a shareable piece of writing that comes across as authentic and candid. (Of course, it’s possible that Carney tried to get his piece published in a traditional press outlet and was rejected; if so, that only underscores the usefulness of Medium and other sites like it in helping corporations get their message out.) Indeed, as soon as Carney posted his piece it went viral, becoming, within hours, one of the most-shared posts on Medium. People immediately started deconstructing the original Amazon article. Was it credible or not? Is Amazon’s workplace culture bruising or not?
Carney’s piece was notable for its style, its methods, and its target, but Amazon is not the only corporation to have aired its complaints directly to the public because it felt as though a news outlet had misrepresented it. Only days before Carney’s post, the high-profile blood-testing startup Theranos published on its Web site a denunciation of a Wall Street Journal exposé that raised questions about the accuracy of its tests. (Theranos used a similar tactic to Amazon’s, questioning the credibility of the Journal’s sources without pointing to specific errors in its reporting.) Not long ago, companies that felt they had been wronged by a news outlet could do little in response, besides requesting a correction, penning a letter to the editor, or, in extreme cases, taking out an ad. Now they can present their version directly to readers—on their own Web sites or on platforms like Medium, Twitter, and Facebook.
Is Carney’s blog post, and others like it, a positive contribution to the public discourse or a perversion of it? On the face of it, responses like his offer a challenge to the project of journalism. While the news organizations covering companies are motivated by the pursuit of truth, and, at least at the largest among them, employ rigorous editing, fact-checking, and legal vetting in that pursuit, companies themselves are propelled by the pursuit of profits, and have been known to bend the truth or to present a part of it which serves their interests. While Carney, in this case, employs the rhetoric of journalism—the proliferation of facts, the readable tone—he is acting as a corporate spokesman, not a journalist. But then, the perspective that Carney’s piece shouldn’t be trusted is complicated by the fact that he presents specific evidence that would seem to put into question at least one source’s credibility (even as the source, according to Baquet, denies being confronted with the allegations against him). If a corporation is presenting information that wasn’t previously available, doesn’t that serve the public interest—especially given that others, including the Times, are welcome to chime in?
In the current media landscape, it’s hard to imagine many readers taking Carney’s post at face value, without examining its broader context. But the balance of power between traditional media outlets and social-media ones is shifting, and that could have profound implications for how people access important information. Some have wondered why Carney bothered to publish his rebuttal a full two months after the Times article ran. One explanation could be that he’s trying to get ahead of potential recruitment issues. A Google search for “Amazon” and “New York Times” delivers Kantor and Streitfeld’s article—but, as of Tuesday, it also turns up Carney’s Medium piece and several articles about it. Platforms like Medium, along with Twitter and other such sites, tend to rank highly in search sites’ algorithms, in part because of the sheer number of people who visit and link to them—and these sites are often the venue of choice for companies hoping to directly present their own perspectives.
At present, articles from the Times and other respected publications also do well in search results, and tend to be advantaged by the algorithms that dictate what shows up places like Facebook news feeds. But it’s not at all hard to imagine a future in which the influence of traditional news outlets—and, in turn, their prominence in search results and social-media feeds—diminishes. Could there be a time when a search for information about a corporation turns up mostly the material that the company has disseminated itself using social media?
The White House’s approach, under Carney, of closing off media access to certain meetings offers a window into how that might look. Two years after Obama’s meeting with Clinton, a Google search for images from the get-together turns up only one anodyne image, originally posted on Twitter: Obama and Clinton lounging at an outdoor table, smiling at each other over plates of salad. At the time, journalists wondered what the two had discussed—Clinton’s Presidential prospects in 2016? The peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians that had just begun?—but a spokesman called the lunch “chiefly social.” If anything newsworthy happened there, Carney and his colleagues made sure that it would be hard to find out.
*Amazon Studios is developing a New Yorker series in partnership with Condé Nast Entertainment.
*This sentence has been corrected to clarify Carney’s job move.
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