Sometimes There’s a Fine Line Between Malfeasance and Myth

A former top executive at Wal-Mart apparently fabricated widely reported allegations of an anti-union program at the company. Did the media create the perception that his allegations were true?

When news emerged last April of Wal-Mart’s covert program to subvert an effort aimed at unionizing its employees, it seemed to confirm everything that had always appeared sinister and soul-crushing about the mega-company’s modus operandi. Or, as Harley Shaiken, a professor on labor issues at the University of California, Berkeley, was quoted yesterday in the New York Times, Wal-Mart’s program — supposedly involving the payment of bribes to employees who informed on union organizers — “certainly would not be out of character.”

But the Times tells us that our prejudices might have gotten the better of us.

Thomas M. Coughlin, Wal-Mart’s second-ranking executive, provided details of the anti-union program when he was accused of misusing more than $500,000 in company funds through fraudulent reimbursements. His defense was that the money was used for what he called a secret “union project.”

The news played big in the media, where Wal-Mart has taken a beating during the past few years as the all-purpose capitalist bogeyman.

But now, after a year-long investigation by prosecutors, it’s clear that the anti-union program was a pure fabrication, just an alibi for all the company money Coughlin used to buy hunting gear and beer. Coughlin was, as the Times puts it, “a highflying executive, paid millions of dollars a year, who stole from his company.” It turns out, this time, that only corruption was at work. Nothing more.

But in repeating Coughlin’s defense, were members of the press falling prey to their own preconceptions about how Wal-Mart behaves?

When the story first broke last April, a number of media outlets did qualify Coughlin’s claims by noting that they were only his version of events. Most articles also cited Wal-Mart’s denials that any such program existed. Mostly, it turns out, it was the unions themselves who latched onto Coughlin’s fabrications, probably seeing a chance to publicize their cause.

Still, there is a lesson to be learned here. At a time when we have come to expect all manner of malfeasance and corruption from corporate leaders, it is quite easy to spread rumors and falsehoods. Even when stories include reservations about the accuracy of a piece of information, readers sometimes perceive the information as truth simply because the media have deemed it worthy of coverage. In any case, it seems strange to us that while dozens of media organizations covered Coughlin’s original allegation, only a few of them have reported the recent conclusion that it was definitely a fabrication.

The fact is, Coughlin was smartly playing on the public perception (fueled, in part, by the press) of Wal-Mart as an unethical actor. The prosecutors have revealed the truth about Coughlin. But the damage he did to Wal-Mart’s image will remain.

This is yet more evidence that objectivity requires stripping away preconceptions to see a story for what it is — and not just believing that an organization will act in a certain way because that’s the sort of organization it has always seemed to be.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.