Aug 18 2006

Cutting Wal-Mart a Break

NY Times goes soft on retail giant

An August 17 article about Democratic politicians criticizing the labor practices of Wal-Mart allowed some of the company’s PR to go unchallenged, while expressing concern that “some Democrats” were worried that the criticisms were going too far.

After noting the critical comments by some high-profile Democrats, the Times reported:

“Some Democrats expressed concern about the direction the party was heading, saying it could turn back efforts by such party leaders as former President Bill Clinton to erase the image of the party as anti-business and scare off corporations that might be inclined to make contributions.”

But the Times quoted no Democrats expressing such “concerns.” In fact, the clearest expressions in the article of worries about Democrats straying too far from corporate-friendly centrism were not attributed to any source, but were stated as fact in the New York Times reporters’ own voice: The article asserted that “there are clear risks for Democrats, not least in alienating Wal-Mart employees and customers.”

To back up this claim, the paper cited Wal-Mart’s PR efforts—namely, a “poll the company financed that reported that Americans were generally supportive of the company.” Instead of citing the company’s polling, the Times might have looked to a recent Pew survey (12/15/05), which found that 34 percent of Americans think Wal-Mart is a bad place to work, and 31 percent have an unfavorable view of the company. As Pew noted, this is “a considerably higher negative rating than is accorded to many other major corporations.” A Zogby poll (12/1/05) conducted for a group critical of the company, Wake Up Wal Mart, found that 56 percent of respondents agreed that the company was “bad for America. It may provide low prices, but these prices come with a high moral and economic cost.”

When the Times got down to specific criticisms, it dealt with them in a “he said/she said” manner, leaving some of Wal-Mart’s rebuttals unchallenged. Democrats, according to the Times, point out that while the company posted an $11 billion profit last year, half of its employees lack health coverage. Democrats also contend that “the average worker earns less than $20,000 a year.” In response, the Times reported: “Wal-Mart counters that its average wage is more than $10 an hour, and that more than 150,000 Americans who had no health insurance now have it through the company.”

These company statements deserved scrutiny; for starters, the company’s self-reported average wage of $9.68 an hour is, according to one study (Dollars and Sense, 1-2/06), “12.4 percent below the average wage for retail workers even after adjusting for geography.” And that hourly wage does not contradict the Democrats’ criticism; an average worker would indeed make less than $20,000, if Wal-Mart’s own numbers are correct. (The Times—10/26/05—recently reported that the average annual Wal-Mart wage was $17,500.)

On the subject of health care, the Times left unchallenged the company’s claim about the number of its workers with health insurance—a misleading point without noting the company’s total U.S. work force of roughly 1.3 million. And as Dollars and Sense pointed out (1-2/06), Wal-Mart covers a lower percentage of its workers than its competitors, and the coverage is not as comprehensive.

But the Times‘ own reporting on this question could have been most helpful. Several months ago, the paper reported (10/26/05) on an internal company memo suggesting ways to trim health benefits even further, acknowledging that the company’s critics “are correct in some of their observations. Specifically, our coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of associates and their children on public assistance.” Why not cite this company admission, instead of its more favorable PR spin?

Reporting the facts, instead of taking the company’s claims at face value or fretting over the concerns of “some Democrats” who are never named or quoted, would better serve the Times’ readers.

ACTION: Let the New York Times know that that you would prefer journalism that challenged corporate claims rather than just repeating them. And ask the Times why it referred to Democrats worried about criticizing Wal-Mart without naming or quoting any of them.


New York Times

Byron Calame, Public Editor

Phone: (212) 556-7652