New York Times Chides Pro-Wal-Mart Bloggers

“Wal-Mart Enlists Bloggers in Its Public Relations Campaign," by Michael Barbaro in Tuesday's New York Times, concerns the discount giant feeding newsbits to bloggers to help its public relations. It tops Tuesday’s business pages, complete with the banner of a pro-Wal-Mart blog that's Barbaro’s main target. Yet Barbaro himself cowrote a story last month based on tips from an anti-Wal-Mart website.

Barbaro writes:

“Under assault as never before, Wal-Mart is increasingly looking beyond the mainstream media and working directly with bloggers, feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters.

For a change, Barbaro focuses his fire not on Wal-Mart as much as the conservative bloggers defending the discount chain:

“But the strategy raises questions about what bloggers, who pride themselves on independence, should disclose to readers. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, has been forthright with bloggers about the origins of its communications, and the company and its public relations firm, Edelman, say they do not compensate the bloggers.”

He does slip in some criticism of Wal-Mart packaged as fact:

"Wal-Mart, long criticized for low wages and its health benefits, began working with bloggers in late 2005 ‘as part of our overall effort to tell our story,’ said Mona Williams, a company spokeswoman.”

Barbaro makes it sound as if liberal assertions about “low wages” are beyond debate.

“But some bloggers are also defensive about their contacts with Wal-Mart. When they learned that The New York Times was looking at how they were using information from the retailer, several bloggers posted items challenging The Times's article before it had appeared. One blog, Iowa Voice, run by [Brian] Pickrell, pleads for advertisers to buy space on the blog in anticipation of more traffic because of the article.”

As if newspapers never try to sell more ads with exciting copy.

“Mr. Pickrell, the 37-year-old who runs the Iowa Voice blog, said he began receiving updates from Wal-Mart in January. Like Mr. Beller, of Crazy Politico, Mr. Pickrell had criticized the Maryland legislature over its health care law before Wal-Mart contacted him.

“Since then, he has written at least three postings that contain language identical to sentences in e-mail from [Edelman account supervisor Marshall] Manson. In one, which Mr. Pickrell attributed to a ‘reader,’ he reported that Wal-Mart was about to announce that a store in Illinois received 25,000 applications for 325 jobs.”

Pickrell himself calls the story a “hit piece” and responds on his blog.

The Marquette Warrior also reacts to Barbaro’s story:

“It's not as grossly unfair as one might expect. But it makes way too much of a very few bloggers who simply cut and pasted from Marshall Manson's e-mails. This is lousy journalism, but it's hardly sinister. How many newspapers have either printed press releases verbatim, or simply rewritten them slightly for publication?”

The anti-Wal-Mart side is active as well on the web, and have provided tips leading to at least one story in the Times, a February 17 piece co-written by Barbaro on comments by Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. lifted off an in-house Wal-Mart website.

From that story:

“Copies of Mr. Scott's postings covering two years were made available to The New York Times by Wal-Mart Watch, a group backed by unions and foundations that is pressing Wal-Mart to improve its wages and benefits. Wal-Mart Watch said it received the postings from a disgruntled manager.”

Barbaro limits his commentary on Wal-Mart Watch in his Tuesday piece:

“Wal-Mart's blogging initiative is part of a ballooning public relations campaign developed in consultation with Edelman to help Wal-Mart as two groups, Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, aggressively prod it to change. The groups operate blogs that receive posts from current and former Wal-Mart employees, elected leaders and consumers.”

Wal-Mart Watch also distributes anti-Wal-Mart tidbits around the web, as its website makes clear:

“Taking on a corporate giant like Wal-Mart requires coordination in gathering and distributing information. If you have a website, please fill out the form below and we will send you occasional updates on ways you can use your website to help us take on Wal-Mart.”

Will Barbaro be scavenging liberal blogs to see if any are cutting and pasting such updates?

Forexamples of New York Times bias, visit TimesWatch.

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.