October 17, 2006
What Constitutes News About Wal-Mart?
Posted by Gordon Smith

The front page of the NYT website featured two stories about Wal-Mart early this morning:


The first story is obviously big news. Wal-Mart is hoping to purchase Trust-Mart, a chain of hypermarkets ("giant stores that sell a wide range of general merchandise and food") in China. The purchase would double Wal-Mart's presence in China and would place Wal-Mart in contention for the title of largest retail chain in the country.

That second story is about 100 workers at a Wal-Mart store in Hialeah Gardens, Florida who were protesting a rollback of their working hours. The resolution:

Wal-Mart officials said the top manager at the store had violated company policy by reducing hours across the board, instead of doing it the usual way by reducing hours here and there to take into account the needs of particular departments and shifts.

What constitutes news about Wal-Mart? Everything!

At some point during the past few years, Wal-Mart became more than a company. It became the embodiment of capitalism. As a result, debates about workers, international trade, community development, health care, corporate social responsibility, etc. all occur in microcosm in Wal-Mart. Unfortunately for Wal-Mart, its symbolic value makes it a prime target for anyone wanting to score points against the status quo.

On a related note, I finally watched Frontline's well-traveled feature "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" (which is available online). I am planning to write something academic about Wal-Mart and its critics, and that may be a more appropriate place to evaluate Hedrick Smith's production. For the present, I will say only that I found the piece disappointingly shallow (with startling revelations like the fact that Wal-Mart attempts to lure unwary customers into the store by using heavily discounted "opening price points") and surprisingly xenophobic (it focused almost as much on China as on Wal-Mart).

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