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The Wal-Mart Question

Liberal media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) has released a piece suggesting that the money Wal-Mart spends to advertise in news outlets may be buying more than ads. Peter Hart and Janine Jackson write:
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?
The answer, Hart and Jackson suggest, is not enough, in part because of the Wal-Mart's advertising. As regular CBS News and consumers know, Wal-Mart is a major CBS News advertiser – click on a video on the Web site, for example, and there's a good chance that you'll see a Wal-Mart ad. I asked Michael Sims,'s director of News and Operations, if the advertising impacts the site's editorial policy.

"Absolutely not," said Sims. "I would invite you to search for Wal-Mart on our site. You'll see a number of stories that are negative." Sims adds that when runs a negative story about the company, Wal-Mart has the option to keep their ad from running on that page – but the company typically doesn't exercise that option.

One would never expect a news director to say that advertising impacts editorial, of course. But Sims is right that has run a number of negative stories about Wal-Mart. Last week, the site ran an Associate Press story in which critics claimed that Jesus wouldn't shop at Wal-Mart. In October, the site ran another AP story about a Wal-Mart heiress who returned her University of Southern California diploma over allegations that she paid her roommate $20,000 to do her homework. A March AP story posted on the site noted that Wal-Mart has agreed to pay $11 million to settle allegations it contracted cleaners that relied on illegal immigrants to clean its stores. And then there's "Wal-Mart Shuts Unionizing Store" and "Wal-Mart Settles Child Labor Cases," also from this year.

Other outlets, most notably the Los Angeles Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its 2003 Wal-Mart series, have run a number of negative stories about the company as well, despite the fact that Wal-Mart advertises with many of them. Kevin Ohannessian of Fast Company argues that "Wal-Mart is among the most negatively-covered big businesses out there."

There have been positive notes struck as well, of course. In January, for example, Charles Osgood interviewed Ben Stein on CBS' "Sunday Morning." Stein complained that the company gets too much bad press, declared his love for the company, and said "The truth is that Wal-Mart is a major blessing for most Americans who shop there and for the people who work there…When a Wal-Mart opens in a town…it's as if everyone in the town got a raise." More recently, the company got a lot of good press for its donations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. From the Wall Street Journal: "After Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart gave away truckloads of products to victims -- distributing them more quickly and efficiently than any government agency…"

But I came across far more negative stories than positive stories when I searched Wal-Mart coverage. It's impossible to draw any definitive conclusions from this, of course, but it does suggest that Wal-Mart isn't buying much good press with its advertising dollars. FAIR focuses on a few stories it considers Wal-Mart "cheerleading," but even if one agrees with their analysis, there's no question that the sample is far from representative. The flip side of all this, of course, is that while it isn't hard to find negative stories about the company, the question one can never answer is how many more negative stories have been avoided because of Wal-Mart's ad spending.

It's been said about many companies that they've tried to buy good press with advertising. There's nothing inherently illegal about this, of course, but the press, which of course traffics in credibility, desperately wants to avoid the perception that it can be bought. No network executive, producer or editor worth his or her salt is ever going to send around a memo or email demanding more positive coverage for an advertiser; reporters would likely rebel against such a stark violation of the sanctity of the editorial process, and if the memo ever got out it would be disastrous from a public relations perspective.

As long as media outlets accept advertising, however, they will always be open to charges that they can be influenced. There will likely never be a smoking gun, but news is a business, and for all the vaunted separation of the news and editorial sides, it doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility that somewhere along the line financial considerations could impact editorial product. It's impossible to discuss all this without sounding a bit conspiratorial, of course, but once might imagine a situation in which someone makes clear to a producer or editor how important an advertiser is to a media company. That producer or editor, consciously or otherwise, might then turn around and discourage – or simply fail to order – an investigative foray into, for example, that advertiser's labor practices. (And anyone who finds this scenario plausible could point to the fact that the most thorough examination of Wal-Mart on television appeared not on a network but on viewer-supported PBS.)

Generally, however, I have to think that, by virtue of their background, many national media reporters are prone to a negative view of Wal-Mart. Most live in cities, have relatively comfortable, well-paying jobs, and are less likely than most Americans to set foot in retailers like Wal-Mart. They're thus more open than someone who actually shops at Wal-Mart to the notion that the chain is a behemoth whose presence is destructive. Local media, of course, plays by different rules. For the simplest of economic reasons, the coverage in local media outlets tends to follow the prevailing opinion of the community, and so if a community wants a Wal-Mart or feels that it's integral to the economy, one shouldn't expect a three part investigative piece on the company's ills. That said, most of the local press I've come across about the company takes a fairly neutral tone.

There's also a challenge to covering Wal-Mart from a purely journalistic perspective. Criticism of the company – a typical complaint concerns the "corrosive effects that Wal-Mart wreaks upon the communities in which it operates and the men and women it employs" – hasn't really changed much over the years. It's difficult for reporters to cover stories that remain largely static, even if those stories are big ones. When there is a hook like the closing of a store for unionizing or child labor settlement, stories do get written. But as for the larger notion that "Wal-Mart is bad for America" – which is, of course, a debatable one – it's difficult for reporters to know where to start. (Unless, of course, they can tie it to a poll.)

I know I've covered a lot of ground here, without coming to much of a conclusion. I don't have a simple answer to the questions raised above. But in light of Wal-Mart's strong advertising presence within CBS News, I think it's important that we at least start asking questions. We'll keep examining the issues I've raised here. In the meantime, if you want to continue the debate, email us or post your thoughts below.