NEW YORK - August 10 - This week, the largest class action suit in U.S. history goes to court in California, as plaintiffs representing over 1 million workers accuse Wal-Mart of sex discrimination.
In addition to being the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart also spends considerable money advertising on mainstream media outlets--including regular spots on network newscasts like ABC's World News Tonight, where the discount giant sponsors the show's regular "Person of the Week" segment. Plastered with huge Wal-Mart ads, it's easy to confuse that feature's web page with a visit to the Wal-Mart website. Wal-Mart regularly airs commercials during the newscasts, and underwrites ABC's daily email preview of the evening newscast (a plug for the company's "Wal-Mart Facts" website).
The company also sponsors the "Only in America" series on ABC's Good Morning America, an arrangement that was criticized by the United Food & Commercial Workers union (UFCW). And ABC and Wal-Mart have other commercial ties as well, including a perfume line that was featured on an ABC soap opera and sold at Wal-Mart stores (Broadcasting & Cable, 2/14/05).
So how will ABC's nightly newscast handle the news of Wal-Mart's day in court? In an August 7 preview, reporter Geoff Morrell called the lawsuit the "biggest civil rights case ever," and quoted plaintiff Chris Kwapnoski. But then ABC lined up three sources to criticize the case, starting with Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott. His comments were echoed by Steve Bokat from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who called the suit "fundamentally unfair."
Morrell then mentioned that "economists say that could have a chilling effect on big retailers, forcing them to raise prices and implement stricter policies for promotion." To back up that point, the broadcast quoted Tim Kane of the right-wing Heritage Foundation--hardly representative of all "economists": "It will make the management risk-averse, that adds cost to you and I."
No experts or advocates in the segment spoke on behalf of the plaintiffs, aside from Kwapnoski herself, whose credibility was undercut by ABC's Morrell: "Ironically, Chris Kwapnoski was promoted three days after filing her suit." The idea that this timely promotion was not irony but strategy on the part of Wal-Mart was not considered.
Giving its lucrative relationship with Wal-Mart, ABC's news reporting on its sponsor should take care not to leave viewers with the impression that the company gets an easy ride. But segments like the August 7 report only contribute to a suspicion that Wal-Mart's sponsorship of the news comes at a steep price--for ABC viewers who want to know more about the company than what the company's PR campaign tells them.
Tell ABC's World News Tonight that its reporting on Wal-Mart--a major sponsor--should be more balanced.
ABC World News Tonight
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