Wal-Mart Tries to Shine Its Image by Supporting Public Broadcasting
August 16, 2004
By CONSTANCE L. HAYS , New York Times
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 its image.
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 historic customers.
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 practices.
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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. Bowers said.
"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
"I'm going to go after some of those others and say 'See,
Wal-Mart did this, why don't you?' " she said.