Hanging Tough in Pensacola

It all began when Mark O’Brien, a columnist at the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, told his readers that Pensacola was in danger of becoming a Wal-Mart kind of town, “cheap and comfy on the surface, lots of unhappiness and hidden costs underneath.”

That didn’t sit well with Bob Hart, a manager for the Wal-Marts in the area, who called News Journal executive editor Randy Hammer to inform him that he was removing the newspaper’s racks from Wal-Mart stores and lots — unless columnist O’Brien was fired.

The columnist’s crime? He wrote, “I like Wal-Mart prices the same as the next shopper, but there’s a downside, too. Many Wal-Mart employees lack the fringe benefits and insurance that makes the difference between existence and a good quality of life. Yet, we customers pay a surcharge from a different pocket — subsidizing health care for Wal-Mart employees who can’t afford it.”

O’Brien then cited a passage from Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat, noting that more than 10,000 children of Wal-Mart employees are in a Georgia state health care program, which costs the state’s taxpayers nearly $10 million a year. He also cited a New York Times report that 31 percent of the patients at a North Carolina hospital were Wal-Mart employees on Medicaid.

Noting that Wal-Mart likes to paint itself as a red-white-and-blue kind of company, executive editor Hammer told readers yesterday, “I might understand it if Wal-Mart said I ought to fire Mark because what he said wasn’t accurate. But that isn’t the case. Mark accurately reported that there are 10,000 children of Wal-Mart employees in a health care program that is costing Georgia taxpayers nearly $10 million a year. … When we stop listening to people on the other side of the fence, when we try to silence and even punish people for thinking differently than we do and raising facts and figures we don’t like, well, we won’t be red, white and blue anymore.

“That’s why Mark still has a job and you can’t buy a Pensacola News Journal at Wal-Mart anymore.”

Big newspapers have been resisting this kind of bluster from huge corporations for 50 years or more — the Wall Street Journal didn’t buckle to a GM advertising boycott in the 1950s after a reporter revealed the designs for GM’s new cars before the company was ready to reveal them, and the Los Angeles Times hasn’t buckled to a GM dealers’ advertising boycott this year after a columnist criticized GM’s management. Since Wal-Mart, for the most part, eschews newpaper advertising, it couldn’t exercise that kind of crude extortion on editor Hammer. So it did the next best thing — throw the newspaper off the premises until columnist O’Brien was sacked.

Obviously, that isn’t costing the paper the kind of revenue it might lose if a big advertiser unhappy with a columnist or news report pulled out. Nonetheless, it’s gratifying to see a paper in a smaller community stand up on its hind legs and resist yet another retail executive who wants to play editor.

The view from here? Randy Hammer is fortunate that Mark O’Brien is his columnist — and columnist O’Brien is especially fortunate that Hammer is his editor.

Steve Lovelady

Update, July 27: Wal-Mart has rescinded its ban, and announced that the News Journal will be back in Pensacola-area stores by the end of the week.

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.