Saturday, March 04, 2006

The New York Times and the Great Wal-Mart Blogger Conspiracy

New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro is working on a story about the fact that public relations people working for the giant retailer Wal-Mart have been feeding news tips and information to sympathetic bloggers around the country.

The Marquette Warrior Blog is among the blogs on the e-mail list of favorably-inclined bloggers that have been sent story tips and leads.

Public relations professionals have long tried to curry favor with established media organizations. But PR efforts aimed a bloggers are a new phenomenon.

We got an e-mail from Barbaro this past Thursday evening, saying he is working on a story and that several of the postings on the Marquette Warrior are relevant to it.

At least two other bloggers on the Wal-Mart mailing list have been similarly contacted.

Barbaro has apparently noticed that similar stories concerning Wal-Mart have appeared roughly simultaneously in recent months. In some cases, bloggers on the list simply cut and pasted information in the e-mails into their blog posts.

To get an idea of how this played out with this blog, we offer the following chronology:
At this point, we begin to receive regular e-mails from Manson, some of which we use as the basis of blog posts, and some of which we don’t.

Over the period from December 9, 2005 through February 23, 2006, we get twelve of what appear to be circular e-mails, sent to all bloggers on his list. We also get three responding to our requests for more information, and one offering us the opportunity to tour the Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas!

No travel money was offered. (Had it been, we would have had to call a journalism colleague to see whether it’s ethical to accept such offers.) Since we are busy this entire semester, we beg off.

We also get one e-mail from Manson congratulating us for debunking the silly claim that Wal-Mart, out of some racist motivation, was selling a DVD package including both a civil rights documentary and the movie “Planet of the Apes.” Wal-Mart was selling the package, alright, but it apparently had no “motivation” at all, being put together by an automated system.

The story leads that Manson sent included:

  1. A complaint that Zogby International had done an unfair poll on public opinion about Wal-Mart. We agreed that the poll was biased, but disagreed that the bias was intentional. We never got around to writing about the issue, although we would have had we had time.
  2. A story lead about how an “Anti-Wal-Mart Group Made Children Cry.” Apparently, demonstrators barged into a Wal-Mart and gave empty boxes wrapped as Christman presents to children, to illustrate the “empty promises” that Wal-Mark supposedly makes. The children, thinking they had gotten real presents, were disappointed. We blew this one off, since the initial e-mail lacked sourcing, and we thought this might be an isolated incident lacking broad importance.
  3. A link to a poll about how union members like Wal-Mart, while union leaders don’t and call for boycotts. We didn’t get around to using this.
  4. An e-mail with links to editorial comment critical of the Maryland bill forcing Wel-Mark to spend more on employee health insurance. Unfortunately, we didn’t get around to this either.
  5. Information on the fact that Wal-Mart was opening a store in Evergreen Park, Illinois. The store had to be outside the Chicago city limits, due to the hostility of the Chicago City Council. 24,500 people (mostly Chicagoans) applied for 325 jobs at the store. We used this.
  6. Leads on articles about how unions, wanting to picket certain businesses, could not get their own members to picket (since they were making excellent money working). So they went out and hired day laborers for a lower wage than Wal-Mart pays to do the picketing, sometimes under highly uncomfortable conditions. Of course, the pickets got no health benefits. We used this with great glee.
  7. A heads up on a New York Times story about the semi-private communication that Wal-Mart’s CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. has with employees on a company web site. Titled “On Private Web Site, Wal-Mart Chief Talks Tough” (in an apparent attempt at a negative spin) the article actually showed Scott saying perfectly reasonable things. Michael Barbaro was one of the authors. We happily deconstructed this article.
  8. Finally, we got a couple of messages about some goody two shoes initiatives at Wal-Mart, including an eco-friendly laptop computer, and the claim by CEO Scott that Wal-Mart is increasing its health care offerings to employees. We blew this off as PR fluff. We like Wal-Mart best when it is being politically incorrect.
During this time, we ran a pro-Wal-Mart article from other sources titled “The Anti-Wal-Mart Religion.”

It will be interesting to see whether Barbaro tries to spin this campaign to cultivate bloggers as some sort of sinister conspiracy.

In fact, journalists are always dependent on various sources to supply leads and information. Barbaro’s article on Scott’s communications with his employees was based on material leaked by Wal-Mart Watch, an anti-Wal Mart group backed by unions and leftist foundations.

And the Times has been willing to publish leaked material that is arguably damaging to national security, as was the case in its exposé of President Bush’s program to spy on phone calls from the U.S. to foreign phone numbers connected to terrorist organizations and suspects.

Of course, all tipsters and leakers have their own agenda. Manson’s is to support Wal-Mart. The leakers in government that the Times uses want to undermine the Bush presidency. The job of a journalist is to exploit the agenda of a source without becoming captive to it.

Wal-Mart is in this, as in supply chain management, ahead of the curve. They are recognizing bloggers are a force that needs to be cultivated and catered to just as corporate PR people (and political activists) have long cultivated and catered to the traditional media.

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