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Coverage of Wal-Mart Movies Lopsided
Media focus on criticism of retailer, picking up themes of anti-store documentary instead of pro-market film.

By R. Warren Anderson
Business & Media Institute

Dec. 08, 2005

Send this page to a friend! (click here)     A company that has lowered food prices by more than the government food stamp program in 2005 and has donated millions upon millions of dollars to charitable causes is a Goliath and similar to a god that failed, according to media reports.

     The Los Angeles Times movie review of The High Cost of Low Price by Kenneth Turan on November 4 described people caught in the lure of Wal-Mart mythology and that realizing that the company they worked for was not the Wal-Mart of their dreams was often a shattering experience, a coming to terms with a god that failed. The review ended, Although the company's low prices are beyond dispute, the question of whether we as a society are selling our soul for cheap underwear is a more difficult one to answer.

     Two movies about Wal-Mart have hit the national scene one positive and one negative and the media have continued to boost the negative one. Why Wal-Mart Works, and Why That Makes Some People Crazy by Ron Galloway is a documentary that discusses the benefits and efficiency of Wal-Mart. The film Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price by Robert Greenwald does the opposite, alleging negative effects and abusive practices.

     Why Wal-Mart Works hasnt received nearly as much attention in print and broadcast media. A Business & Media Institute analysis of print coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times since June 1 found no articles or movie reviews in print devoted to the positive film, while the negative film had 11 articles, six mentions in the new DVD and movie section, and two movie reviews. The four newspapers mentioned both the documentaries in the same article 11 times, yet the coverage wasnt equal. Four of the articles mentioning both films were slanted negatively, and only one article discussed both sides of the issue.

     Broadcast outlets were a bit more even-handed, alluding to both documentaries in three out of four stories, with the fourth story covering problems with The High Cost of Low Price.
However, CNNs November 16 American Morning focused on Wal-Marts problems, saying that the largest retailer in the world is now dealing with some high-volume trouble thats not so easy to discount.

     Anchor Miles OBrien wondered aloud whether Wal-Marts public relations strategy is like trying to put a little lipstick on a pig. He also offered his Armchair Economics about employees wages: Wal-Mart employees are also Wal-Mart customers as well, and they might be able to spend a little more at the retailer as well. He missed out on the fact that higher prices would probably have to be charged in order to give higher wages to employees.

What They Said
     From the articles that mentioned only Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, the coverage again was biased against the corporation. The stories had the following to say:

  • Wal-Mart is not the only company in the world accused of trying to work its employees to death. The New York Times, November 4.
  • The director said that theres a pervasive climate of fear surrounding Wal-Mart employees. Los Angeles Times, August 9.
  • The makers of the film also intend to show how the retailer exerts its outsized influence on American culture through the so-called Wal-Mart effect, by limiting the choices of products like clothing, music and movies that are available to consumers. The New York Times, June 1.
  • The sweatshop conditions in which thousands of employees of Wal-Mart's suppliers routinely work, and the depressive effect that Wal-Mart has on working-class living standards here in the United States, are receiving increasing scrutiny. Washington Post editorial, October 26.
  • Wal-Mart is in China because it's been able to forge a symbiotic relationship between its own dirt-cheap and inherently abusive labor practices and the Chinese government's totalitarian suppression of worker rights. Washington Post editorial, October 26.

Sorting out the Truth
     A few outlets offered critiques of Greenwalds film, assessing its accuracy.

     Sebastian Mallabys editorial in
The Washington Post on November 28 filled in some holes. Mallaby explained that Wal-Mart boosts the welfare of American shoppers by at least $50 billion a year from food savings, and possibly five times that amount for all goods. This is important for lower-income people, as the average income of Wal-Mart shoppers in $35,000.

     To put the number in perspective, Food stamps were worth $33 billion in 2005, and the earned-income tax credit was worth $40 billion. Critics claim that Wal-Mart is a parasite to taxpayers since 5 percent of its workforce is on Medicaid, but Mallaby pointed out that 4 percent of workers nationally are on Medicaid.

     The High Cost of Low Price focused on H & H Hardware in northern Ohio. New York Times columnist John Tierney on November 26 described the documentarys depiction of the anguished owner who needs a loan to survive, but complains that the bank has refused him because Wal-Mart's pending arrival has depressed the value of his property. Then bulldozers in action followed, with mournful twangs of a guitar as the hardware store went out of business. But Tierney talked to the people who live in the area, and they told him a different story.

     The store was bought out by local residents whom Tierney interviewed, and they told him that the business had been floundering for years because of management mistakes. He also interviewed the former owner, who insisted that while Wal-Mart had hurt his prospects, he had also been losing customers well before Wal-Mart because he had made bad decisions and couldn't afford to keep his shelves stocked. The property value is now higher than it was before because of Wal-Marts presence. The new manager isnt worried about the retailer and the business is doing fine.

     Brit Hume on Fox News also covered The High Cost of Low Price on November 16. After showing the clip of H&H Hardware closing down, he talked to Byron York of National Review. York, like Tierney, talked with the former owner. He had a similar story as Tierneys. People York talked to in the town said H&H had been troubled for several years and poor decisions made by management forced the company to shut down. The owner disliked the retailer, and he says a number of very negative things about Wal-Mart, and he believes it does destroy businesses around the country. But he says in his case, there was no connection.

     The Los Angeles Times Abigail Goldman offered a balanced look in her November 4 article, Documentaries Ramp Up Debate Over Wal-Mart. She said that Greenwald's film offers personal stories from Wal-Mart employees, Chinese factory workers, small shopkeepers, local politicians and others who painstakingly recount the wrongs they believe have been done to them by the behemoth from Bentonville.

     Then Goldman turned to Why Wal-Mart Works, mentioning Sha-Ron, a Wal-Mart manager who never had a job or health insurance before a Wal-Mart store manager took a chance on her. Furthermore Jessica, a store manager in Waveland, Miss., clothed and fed her town after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A third interview shows a Minnesota resident who was shocked when Wal-Mart hired her at age 75.

     Goldman explained the two films approaches to profits. In The High Cost of Low Price the company is shown to be obsessed with profit, she wrote. Yet in Why Wal-Mart Works the company merely reaps the financial rewards of brilliantly executing a business that tens of millions of Americans can't live without. Instead of relegating Why Wal-Mart Works into a paragraph mentioning its release, Goldman gave both sides.