This morning, I walked to Blue Star Cafe, sat down with a mocha and my most recent New Yorker, and read Jeffrey Goldberg's story about how Wal-Mart is trying to woo liberals. It is freaking fantastic. Do yourself a favor, and take a few minutes to read it.
I think I liked it so much because Goldberg so deftly parses the company's spin, which, let me tell you, is not an easy thing to do when you're writing about some little governmental agency here in Vermont, much less a multinational behemoth like Wal-Mart.
There is great mistrust of the press at Wal-Mart headquarters. Thechief spokeswoman for the company, a former A. T. & T. executivenamed Mona Williams, keeps on a shelf a framed cover of a 2003 issue of Business Week featuring a story titled “Is Wal-Mart TooPowerful?” The story asked tough questions about Wal-Mart’s influenceon the American economy. “I keep that there to remind me never to trustreporters,” she said, without smiling.
Can you believe they don't trust reporters at Wal-Mart?
Goldberg writes extensively about the company's relationship with Washington-based PR firm Edelman, which is charged with helping the company reverse its negative public image. Edelman's 20 execs work in an area at the Wal-Mart home office called "Action Alley."
Sarah Clark was friendlier, but similarly suspicious. It was Clarkwho, without enthusiasm, brought me to Action Alley for a brief glimpseinside.Before opening the door, she instructed me not to write downanything I saw—the third time that this particular directive had beenissued. In some ways, the home office is not unlike the headquarters ofthe National Security Agency—both contain a large number of windowlessrooms and both are staffed by people who are preoccupied by themovement of strangers in their midst. The N.S.A.’s headquarters,though, seemed to me more aesthetically appealing; the Wal-Mart homeoffice resembles a poorly funded elementary school.
Believe it or not, one of the people working in this "threadbare room" is former Howard Dean aide Fred Baldassaro.
One section of the story, which I think I'm going to print out and put on the wall above my desk, describes Goldberg's conversation with David Tovar, a Wal-Mart PR guy who used to work for Philip Morris. It's particularly interesting in light of the recent debate in Vermont over journalists who go to work for the government, or for private corporations.
Tovar offered a more self-interested explanation for his service in thepublic-relations industry: “Why did I go work for Philip Morris?Because I wanted to get out of my parents’ house. Why do people takejobs? It’s like in ‘Thank You for Smoking’ ”— Christopher Buckley’ssatire of the Washington public-relations industry. “What do they allsay in that book? ‘I’ve got to pay the mortgage.’ You know, everybody’sgot to pay the mortgage.”
I read this and thought, I hope I never have to work in the PR industry to pay my mortgage.
Surprisingly, Goldberg actually made me feel somewhat more sympathetic to Wal-Mart, which I think means that it was a good story.
PS — I also liked this short story from last week's New Yorker: Playdate, by Kate Walbert.