August 16, 2004, Monday
Wal-Mart Tries to Shine Its Image By Supporting
By CONSTANCE L. HAYS (NYT) 1630 words
Wal-Mart, stung by criticism of its labor practices, expansion
plans and other business tactics, is turning to public radio,
public television and even journalists in training to try to improve
So far this year, the company has become a sponsor on National
Public Radio, where recorded messages promote its stores. It has
underwritten a popular talk show, ''Tavis Smiley,'' accompanied
by similar promotional messages, on a public television station
in California. And earlier this month, Wal-Mart announced plans
to award $500,000 in scholarships to minority students at journalism
programs around the country, including Howard University, University
of Southern California and Columbia University.
Wal-Mart has not supported any of those organizations in the
past. But as the company outgrows its rural roots and moves into
suburbs and cities, it is encountering more resistance from people
whose traditions and values may be different from those of Wal-Mart's
The company has been faulted for its selective approach toward
the publications that it sells, which has included banning three
men's magazines and ordering plastic covers to conceal what it
considered ''uncomfortable'' headlines on several women's titles,
including Glamour and Redbook. It has refused to sell music albums
with what it deems offensive lyrics, and manufacturers acknowledge
producing sanitized versions of popular CD's in order to maintain
a presence in the giant retailer's stores.
Mona Williams, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said the journalism
scholarships were ''a first of their kind'' for the retailer,
and came about because of the recent publicity around its business
''We've really been in the spotlight and I think that's made
us especially sensitive to the need for balanced coverage,'' Ms.
Williams said. ''It doesn't matter if the subject is Wal-Mart
or something else. You just aren't going to have that unless different
perspectives are represented.'' Without diversity, she added,
''the result can be narrower thinking as news events are presented
to the public.''
Influencing that presentation may be at the heart of the effort,
although Ms. Williams said there was ''no hidden agenda here''
and added that it probably would have been done even if Wal-Mart
had not come under scrutiny.
John Siegenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt
University, said, ''Wal-Mart is doing what most corporations do:
when they feel pain, they try to salve the wound.'' He predicted
that ''they may get less out of it than they expect to,'' but
he added that ''if it helps minority journalism, I hope they salve
it with more than half a million dollars.''
As for public radio, Ms. Williams said the company sought the
demographic that National Public Radio listeners represent. The
goal is to ''reach community leaders and help them understand
the value that we bring to their areas.''
''We want those folks to know that having a Wal-Mart in their
town is a good thing,'' she said.
A spokeswoman for NPR, Jenny Lawhorn, said its audience consisted
of ''intelligent and well-educated people'' who ''tend to be business
leaders and tend to be engaged in the civic process.'' According
to a recent survey, about 56 percent of them are Wal-Mart shoppers,
she said, compared with 66 percent of the general population.
Wooing community leaders fits well into Wal-Mart's plans. The
company has stumbled in recent months against opposition to its
stores. In April, its effort to win voter support for a store
in the Inglewood, Calif., suburb of Los Angeles was defeated after
the company took the unusual step of putting the issue on the
ballot. An attempt to build a store in Chicago was rejected, although
a second store was approved, while plans to open a store in downtown
New Orleans have been slowed by opposition as well.
The company has also been criticized by labor unions, which say
Wal-Mart fights their organizing efforts. In California, unionized
supermarket workers staged a lengthy strike earlier this year
seeking benefits that stores said they could not afford because
they needed to compete with Wal-Mart.
Neither Wal-Mart nor NPR would reveal what it pays as an NPR
sponsor. The contract began Feb. 16 and extends until January.
Total corporate financing is expected to reach $30 million this
year, Ms. Lawhorn said. As part of its NPR arrangement, Wal-Mart
is described several ways when it is mentioned as an underwriter
on the air. The descriptions include the following: ''Wal-Mart.
Providing jobs and opportunities for millions of Americans of
all ages and all walks of life.'' Another says the company is
''bringing communities job opportunities, goods and services and
support for neighborhood programs.''
NPR has received letters and e-mail messages from listeners since
the Wal-Mart underwriting information began to be broadcast. One
listener wrote: ''What a disappointment! Maybe next it will be
Halliburton.'' The role of Wal-Mart was taken up by NPR's ombudsman,
Jeffrey Dvorkin, who wrote in his NPR.org online column, ''Wal-Mart
symbolizes values that some listeners believe to be antithetical
to the values of public radio'' and suggested that ''one way that
NPR could prove that underwriting has no effect on its integrity
is for NPR to produce more hard-hitting interviews, more investigative
reporting and yes, even more scandalizing satires.''
The company also underwrites ''Tavis Smiley,'' a talk show on
KCET, the public television station in Los Angeles. The program
began in January and Wal-Mart was on board immediately, a spokesman
for the show, Joel Brokaw, said. In late March, Mr. Smiley interviewed
Wal-Mart's chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., who is seldom made
available to reporters. After disclosing twice that Wal-Mart sponsored
the show, Mr. Smiley went on to ask his guest about Wal-Mart's
image problems. Mr. Brokaw said he did not know how much Wal-Mart
paid to be a sponsor.
The journalism plan evolved separately, Ms. Williams said. Ten
journalism schools will receive $50,000 each, which will be distributed
as $2,500 scholarships to four students at each school. The scholarships
will be awarded in each student's junior year and can be renewed
for the senior year as well.
The recipients chosen include Arizona State University and Syracuse
University. Administrators at the universities said the selections
came as a complete surprise. In most cases, corporate donations
for scholarships are unheard of, the administrators said, unless
the corporation is involved in the news business or another communications
medium like advertising.
''It's kind of a reach to expect companies that don't see themselves
as part of the media world to support journalism education,''
said Steve Doig, the interim director of the Cronkite School of
Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State, where some
scholarships have been provided by newspaper companies like Gannett.
Mr. Doig, a former reporter for the Miami Herald, said that he
was aware of Wal-Mart's practices with magazines but that did
not prevent him from accepting the scholarship money.
''It's not the American Nazi Party,'' he said. ''I don't see
Wal-Mart as problematic enough to miss the opportunity they are
offering to several of our students.''
He added: ''Both the banning of certain magazines and the decision
to give money to journalism schools are calculated behaviors and
not necessarily contrary. I don't support banning newspapers or
any particular publication, but a company has the right to decide
what it wants to sell.''
Wal-Mart also plans to include the scholarship students at next
year's annual shareholder meeting, Ms. Williams said.
''They will be guests in the audience, and we think that would
be a great educational experience for them,'' she said. They may
also have tours of the company's offices in Bentonville, Ark.,
as well as a warehouse nearby.
Tom Bowers, dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication
at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said the move
was ''saying to the public, look at the good thing we're doing.''
North Carolina was not one of the journalism schools designated
by Wal-Mart for scholarships, but the university awards about
$100,000, some from media companies, to students every year, Mr.
''The people who win our scholarships typically don't go to any
national meetings and aren't put on display by these corporate
donors,'' he said. ''We certainly make sure there is no quid pro
quo on these. The only obligation is to write them a letter and
thank them for the scholarship. The student isn't expected to
do anything for the company.''
Of the programs chosen, only the University of Southern California's
Annenberg School has received corporate funding from nonmedia
companies in the past. A spokesman, Geoffrey Baum, said the school
had gotten money from Nissan and General Motors, as well as from
Raytheon and Home Depot for public-relations programs. Some journalism
programs are in states where Wal-Mart has opened a large number
of stores. The University of Florida and the University of Texas
made the list; those states have nearly 600 of Wal-Mart's 3,596
stores, according to Wal-Mart.
Jannette L. Dates, dean of Howard University's John H. Johnson
School of Communications, hopes that Wal-Mart's scholarship will
encourage other nonmedia companies to contribute.
''I'm going to go after some of those others and say 'See, Wal-Mart
did this, why don't you?''' she said.
Correction: August 17, 2004, Tuesday An article in Business Day
yesterday about efforts by Wal-Mart to improve its image incorrectly
described ''Tavis Smiley,'' a popular talk show that it underwrites
on public television. While it is produced by KCET in Los Angeles,
the show is also broadcast by other stations across the country.
The article also misspelled the name of the founder of the First
Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, who commented on Wal-Mart's
plans to award $500,000 in scholarships to minority students.
He is John Seigenthaler, not Siegenthaler.
CAPTIONS: Photos: H. Lee Scott Jr., left, the chief of Wal-Mart
Stores, rarely available to the media, was interviewed by PBS
host Tavis Smiley, whose talk show is supported by Wal-Mart. (Photo
by Smiley Group)(pg. C1); Geoffrey Baum, a spokesman for the Annenberg
School for Communications in Los Angeles, said Wal-Mart was added
to the list of corporate sponsors like Nissan, General Motors,
Raytheon and Home Depot. (Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New
York Times)(pg. C6)