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Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004 01:51 pm

Wal-Mart buys respectability


Wal-Mart has a problem. People all across America and the world are learning that it's a beast of a corporation that -- among other things -- pays poverty wages, engages in massive sexual discrimination, exploits sweatshop labor, bullies its suppliers, muscles local competitors out of business, and tries to buy its way into cities that don't want it.

So, with its reputation sinking and sales slipping, Wal-Mart is finally taking action! Not to reform itself, of course, but to try to put a thick coat of PR polish over its brutish tactics. A few months ago, it launched a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz to paint itself as the Mother Teresa of global corporations.

And now, Wal-Mart has made the ultimate reach for media respectability -- it has become a sponsor of National Public Radio. Yes, for some $30 million, it gets to present itself on public radio as a paragon of virtue in a series of underwriting ads. For example, in one, an NPR announcer solemnly intones that Wal-Mart is "bringing communities job opportunities, goods and services, and support for neighborhood programs."

Also, to curry media favor, Wal-Mart has suddenly become a benefactor of journalistic studies, putting up a half-million bucks for journalism scholarships at 10 universities. These Wal-Mart "scholars" will be the future reporters covering the company (or choosing not to cover it), so the corporate benefit of this "philanthropy" is obvious. But why would universities go along with such an obvious cash-for-favoritism ploy, given that Wal-Mart is notorious for censorship, literally banning certain publications from its stores?

Because money talks louder than principles. After all, Arizona State's journalism head said Wal-Mart is "not the American Nazi Party."

Well, at least we learn that journalism has some standards! Any sleazeball outfit better than Nazis is OK.

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