former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

How The Post Failed The Public on Wal-Mart

In Blog on July 18, 2013 at 8:00 am

Washington, D.C. probably is home to more think tanks and economists than any other city in America. So you would think The Washington Post, still the city’s leading newspaper, might have turned to some of them to shed a little light on a major local controversy.

The D.C. City Council recently passed the Large Retailer Accountability Act, or the “living wage bill.”  It would require large retailers to pay a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour.  In reaction to the passage of the bill, Wal-Mart has said it will withdraw plans to develop three stores in the District, and reconsider its plans for three other stores already under construction. As I write this, no one knows whether Washington Mayor Vincent Gray will veto the bill.  It doesn’t appear that the council has the votes to override a veto.

I am not complaining about The Post’s two editorials opposed to the living wage bill.  The paper has a right to take a position on this issue, albeit one that was heavily biased in Wal-Mart’s favor.

What does bother me is the quality of the paper’s overall coverage. As this controversy has played out, The Post has failed to provide comprehensive ongoing reporting on the issue, or to give its readers consistently solid explanatory journalism that provides facts and context, and challenges assumptions.

Instead, The Post’s coverage has been scatter-shot.  Some of its best analysis seemed to be left to the paper’s blogs, which tend to be more commentary than straight news, and while very informative, lack the authoritative voice of news stories. Blogs, too, are not always published in the print editions of the paper.  That means that the people most affected by the Wal-Mart decision, those in underdeveloped neighborhoods waiting for a Wal-Mart bounce, might not have access to all the information about the controversy.

At the very least, The Post should have explained what the living wage bill does in some detail, not just once, when the bill was introduced, but for each significant story on the controversy.  A Post story in March included facts about the living wage bill that were significant and deserved repetition.  The living wage bill applies only to large retailers who have not negotiated wages through collective bargaining agreements. And the $12.50, as I understand it, is actually $11.75 if benefits already provided by the employer are factored in. That distinction appears to have been lost in most of the subsequent news coverage of the law.

But The Post should have done much, much more.  It could have reached out to the city’s urban policy experts and economists, and given the community coverage that:

Investigated what the city had already given to Wal-Mart in way of tax breaks or other benefits to persuade it to come to the city to begin with.  If not tax breaks, were there any other concessions to the mega retailer?

Verified the number of jobs that Wal-Mart claimed the six projects would create, and whether they would be full- or part-time, and Wal-Mart’s track record on hiring local residents for those jobs.

Considered whether, as Ryan Chittum writes in Columbia Journalism Review, retailers actually “add” jobs, or merely displace other retailers. (Chittum’s analysis may be off because Wal-Mart was locating in parts of the city underserved by stores, but it still was worth examining.)

Gave a detailed accounting of Wal-Mart’s political donations to city council and mayoral elections over the past six years.

Identified the groups that received donations from Wal-Mart’s philanthropic arm, and explored whether recipients of Wal-Mart’s generosity have become the retailer’s ardent supporters. A brief story did touch on the rather important disclosure that Wal-Mart was a primary supporter of “Don’t Block D.C. Progress,” a group that had organized opposition to the living wage bill, but there could have been much more.

Cited studies and/or experts to check the accuracy of labor leaders’ contentions that a non-unionized Wal-Mart would depress wages in local unionized supermarkets.

Compared Wal-Mart philanthropic donations, which The Post states totaled $3.8 million last year, to Wal-Mart’s performance as an employer and whether it would make the day-to-day lives of future employees any better. Would new Wal-Mart hires just become members of the working poor who rely on food stamps and lack adequate health care? How much does the community actually benefit from more jobs if workers are paid so little that they have to continue to depend on federal benefits and local programs to survive?

Explained what $12.50 an hour translates into as an annual salary, and gave that annual salary some context by reporting whether it would place a two-earner family above or below the poverty level in this region.

Examined what the loss of Wal-Mart stores might mean to the city’s under-stored residents, which goes beyond quoting community activists.  One Post story raised the legitimate issue that Wal-Mart could be a source of cheap nutritious food for low-income residents without access to big supermarkets. But that story would have been much richer and informative if the reporter had cited any data demonstrating that Wal-Mart’s presence in other low-income regions of the country has had a positive, measurable impact on the health and nutrition of residents.

Some credit should be given to The Post’s Outlook section for publishing “Five Myths About Wal-Mart.”  The author provided a bit of thoughtful analysis on some contentious issues around the retail giant.  But the analysis was far too little, and far too late.

The overall assumption of nearly all The Post coverage was that Wal-Mart was doing the city an enormous favor by choosing to sell its wares in the nation’s capital.  That somehow the giant and ruthless retailer was doing this out of the goodness of its heart, and the city council had betrayed all its disinterested good will.  Interestingly, Forbes, hardly a leftist publication, raised the novel notion that Wal-Mart might actually have something to gain from settling in D.C., and questioned whether, if push came to shove, the retailer would forgo the chance to operate in the city.

Over the past months, however, one Post reporter offered a different and refreshing perspective, Lydia DePillis.

It was DePillis who wrote for Mike Debonis’s Post blog that the “living wage” that Wal-Mart is stoutly resisting is about the same as what Wal-Mart purports to pay, on average, to all its workers.  DePillis also seems to be the only Post staffer to cite a study by two Berkeley economists that evaluated the impact of a wage hike on Wal-Mart. The study estimates that if the entire Wal-Mart workforce earned $12 an hour, prices would have to increase by slightly more than one percent to cover the entire cost of increasing wages.  That means, they concluded, that the average Wal-Mart shopper, who spends about $1,200 a year at Wal-Mart, would pay less than $13 a year more to absorb the price increase. (It’s too bad columnist Petula Dvorak didn’t consult that study before she took her pro-Wal-Mart stand.)

DePillis also reported that labor leaders met with Wal-Mart officials and offered to walk away from a living wage bill if the retail giant would agree to collective bargaining.  Wal-Mart declined.

When I did more research on the resourceful Lydia, I discovered her secret.  She’d been doing  incisive long-form journalism on Wal-Mart wooing the community for Washington City Paper. I was surprised to find that many of the questions I suggested in this post had been pursued by DePillis in 2011.  At least The Post was smart enough to hire her.

There is one other question about this controversy that would be nice to answer – one The Post needs no expert to address.  How much does Wal-Mart typically spend on ad buys in local papers?

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