Dec
01
2005

Media Lick the Hand That Feeds Them

Does Wal-Mart’s money buy more than ads?

In January 2005, readers across the country all saw the same thing in their morning paper: an ad for Wal-Mart. That in itself is no surprise—Wal-Mart is, after all, the largest corporation in the world—but this particular ad, which ran in more than a hundred papers, was different: it consisted of a rebuttal of arguments lodged by the retail behemoth’s critics.

Subject to condemnation for business practices ranging from low pay and stingy healthcare benefits to exporting jobs and destroying small businesses, Wal-Mart is also the subject of litigation, including a class action discrimination suit representing 1.6 million current and former female workers who accuse the company of systematic underpayment and lack of promotion.

The ad blitz was something of a two-fer for Wal-Mart, since many outlets thought it interesting enough to report as actual news, including USA Today (1/13/05), which ran two stories on it.

It was just part of a PR offensive that included big-money charitable donations (dutifully reported) and an April invitation to reporters to its Bentonville, Ark. headquarters for a “media day.” The session was described as a “feisty response to critics” (New York Times, 4/6/05) and a chance for Wal-Mart to “defend” itself and “dispel myths” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 4/6/05). Journalists were reportedly enjoined “to clear their minds of previous articles about the company and ‘start with a clean slate’” (AP, 4/6/05).

But the media image of a beleaguered corporation at last responding to a “horde of critics” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 4/6/05) raises at least one question: Just how tough has media scrutiny of Wal-Mart really been? “You’ve heard the firestorm of criticism about the company, about wages, benefits, union-busting, about locking employees in, about making them work overtime without paying them for it,” ABC’s Charlie Gibson said in introducing a Good Morning America interview with CEO Lee Scott (1/13/05). But how much have most people really heard about these issues?

There has without question been some hard-hitting investigative reporting on Wal-Mart’s controversial business practices, including a 2003 Los Angeles Times series (11/23-25/03) that nabbed a Pulitzer Prize, and a probing report on PBS’s Frontline (11/16/04).

More typical, however, are accounts like Time’s “Wal-Mart Nation” (6/27/05). Focusing on Wal-Mart’s Chinese enterprises, the article has an undeniably cheerleading theme: Wal-Mart is staging a “revolution” in China, in part by “spreading a management style that many of its young Chinese employees find liberating.”

Time introduced “quintessential Wal-Mart guy” Joe Hatfield (“I was blessed to work for Sam Walton”) and followed his tour through a Shenzhen Wal-Mart, where, he enthused, “We’re bringing people a great shopping experience!” “Chinese customers,” Time added helpfully, “seem to agree.”

As in many articles, what criticisms were included Time allowed Wal-Mart to trump. What about complaints that the industry giant’s use of cheap overseas labor undercuts U.S. workers? Time left unchallenged Hatfield’s response that “if you stop stuff from [abroad] coming into the U.S., it would mean $180 blue jeans. Is that what Americans want?” Time didn’t point out that it’s easy to find U.S.-made jeans for less than $30.

But the magazine did step in when a spokesperson from Sweatshop Watch noted that Wal-Mart’s policies make it “both a beneficiary and a driver of the race to the bottom in the global economy.” The article followed the statement with its own rebuttal: “But that may be less true than it was 20 years ago.” Many of Wal-Mart’s suppliers are operating in countries like Taiwan and Hong Kong, Time explained, and had long ago left U.S. workers. So Wal-Mart “may indeed be eliminating factory jobs, but in South Korea, not South Carolina.” It’s unclear how this undermined the point that Wal-Mart drives the economic race to the bottom; it seems more an argument that it’s been largely successful.

For those worried about sweatshop conditions, Time offered comfort: “Wal-Mart says it’s trying to export its American-style standards and ethics to China’s manufacturing sector too.” Time presents the company matter-of-factly as “forcing suppliers to stick to ethical standards” (despite Chinese resistance), and claimed that “even those critical of Wal-Mart concede” that those standards are improving conditions.

In fact, the critic quoted underscored that such rules only work when enforced, a point on which the company, facing lawsuits on behalf of contractors’ employees from Nicaragua to Swaziland, is frequently criticized, and which more skeptical reporting has illustrated. A hidden-camera investigation by NBC’s Dateline (6/17/05), for example, found that corporate “codes of conduct” were not necessarily meaningful guides to life inside a factory in Bangladesh.

Press accounts have frankly celebrated Wal-Mart’s reputed toughness on suppliers in the U.S. as well. A May 8, 2005 New York Times piece presents a company executive demonstrating how she might call a supplier on the carpet: “‘Hello. . . . Where are the bananas? We’re supposed to have 3 percent in this trail mix.’” “Quality control,” reported the Times, “is rigorous.”

Such admiration-tinged anecdotes would sit strangely side by side with, for example, the company’s official contention that executives “knew nothing about” the hundreds of illegal immigrants being used to clean stores in 21 states, and that in any event it was contractors, not Wal-Mart, that were responsible for the janitors’ treatment (New York Times 3/19/05). The same presumably went for the child laborers Wal-Mart settled lawsuits about in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Arkansas.

In the last year or two, Wal-Mart has become a more prominent advertiser on news programs, occasionally to the dismay of news consumers. Some NPR listeners, for example, weren’t pleased with Wal-Mart’s new role as a frequently mentioned “underwriter” of NPR programming. Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin dismissed the complaints in an online column (6/23/04): “NPR is a mature and robust news organization. It would take more than a few Wal-Mart underwriting messages to corrupt its journalistic integrity.”

This stance raises an obvious question: If we needn’t worry about the effects of corporate money on news values, what’s the point of public radio? In any case, NPR’s post-underwriting coverage of the retail behemoth does little to quell concerns.

Take Tavis Smiley’s NPR program (cited in The Nation, 3/28/05), which featured a one-on-one interview with Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott just before local voters weighed in on a proposed Wal-Mart site in Inglewood, Calif., a largely African-American suburb of L.A. (The company lost.) Smiley, whose programs are supported by Wal-Mart, gave Scott an easy time, marveling that employees at Wal-Mart’s Arkansas headquarters call him by his first name, and pitching softball questions like: “Of all the criticisms that are leveled at Wal-Mart these days, which ones do you find most troubling? Which one do you really say, ‘You know what? This kind of allegation we will not tolerate’?”

Smiley was open about his approach in a September 5, 2005 Time magazine article about Wal-Mart efforts to “court” the African-American community. Claiming his relationship with Scott and Wal-Mart allows him to raise issues “in private,” the host said he doesn’t begrudge more adversarial approaches. “You need a good inside game and a good outside game,” Smiley explained.

NPR overall would seem to share that attitude. A review of a year’s worth of the network’s Wal-Mart coverage by Eesha Williams in the Massachusetts Valley Advocate (8/18/05) failed to turn up any “hard-hitting investigative journalism.” Williams singled out a puff piece All Things Considered (8/9/05) ran regarding a supposedly eco-friendly store Wal-Mart opened in Texas. Williams pointed out that NPR failed to quote any environmental experts on the overall impact of a company “well-known for building its mammoth stores and parking lots on prime farmland in a location customers have to drive to even when there is vacant retail space in a walkable downtown.”

Wal-Mart’s role as a premium advertiser is even more apparent on ABC News programming. The company’s ads air regularly on ABC’s World News Tonight, and Wal-Mart sponsors the program’s “Person of the Week” segment, as well as the “Only in America” series on ABC’s Good Morning America. (The company also entered into an exclusive perfume marketing deal with an ABC soap opera.)

It’s only natural to wonder whether such close commercial ties affect ABC’s coverage of Wal-Mart. Some ABC reports have noted rather mundane Wal-Mart-related developments, like a Virginia store’s “singles night” mentioned on Good Morning America (7/14/05).

Of greater concern is coverage of more serious issues, as when Wal-Mart went to court in early August to defend itself in the class-action sex discrimination lawsuit. On World News Tonight (8/7/05), ABC ran a segment that included a quote from plaintiff Chris Kwapnoski—before going to three sources to criticize the case, starting with Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott. Steve Bokat from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce echoed Scott, calling the suit “fundamentally unfair.”

ABC reporter Geoff Morrell also reported that “economists say [the lawsuit] could have a chilling effect on big retailers, forcing them to raise prices and implement stricter policies for promotion.” To back up that point, the broadcast went to Tim Kane of the right-wing Heritage Foundation: “It will make the management risk-averse: that adds cost to you and me.” No other economists were quoted.

About a month later (9/20/05), ABC displayed more Wal-Mart cheerleading. In an echo of Time’s piece three months earlier, World News Tonight showed viewers “how Wal-Mart is changing the way the Chinese shop.”

Correspondent Bill Weir called attention to singing Wal-Mart workers and the “brightly-lit aisles” where “China’s exploding middle class is discovering the novelty of free samples and a wide selection of everything.” A customer praised the store (“It’s big, it’s clean . . . and you feel good here”) and Wal-Mart’s Joe Hatfield praised his customers (“Talk about price conscious”).

The only other source in the report was Jim McGregor, identified as the author of One Billion Customers but not as senior director of Stonebridge International, “a global business strategy firm that helps U.S. and multinational companies . . . seize business opportunities worldwide.” McGregor enthused about the new efficiency Wal-Mart has brought to the Chinese economy, saying that Wal-Mart’s suppliers had to “clean up their act to compete.”

ABC’s Weir also praised Wal-Mart for that efficiency:

While Wal-Mart has changed the way people shop, they’re also changing the way suppliers think. . . . Many manufacturers were shocked to learn that if they want their products on these shelves, it’s not who you know, it’s what you know about keeping costs down.

Of course, the wage-and-hour complaints, the lawsuits, the outrage over the memo in which Wal-Mart’s execs suggest discouraging “less healthy people” from applying for jobs—all center precisely on the unacceptability of what Wal-Mart, as the world’s most powerful retailer, does to “keep costs down.” Corporate media’s uncritical embrace of concepts like “efficiency” poorly prepares them to grapple with such concerns.

Without behind-the-scenes knowledge, it’s impossible to say whether or how much Wal-Mart’s ad money actually affects coverage at any given outlet. But if the company did hope to buy friendly coverage, it ought to feel it has so far gotten its money’s worth. There is a growing groundswell of critical concern about the company, but activists are leading the way, with most media, so far, trailing well behind.

Please also see the sidebar to this article: Superstore Censorship