Three stories, three tacks on a Walmart’s employee food drive

How the Plain Dealer, Business Insider, and Fox News told the news

In one of the more revealing self-inflicted PR disasters since McDonald’s advised its impoverished employees to get a second full-time job to make ends meet, a Walmart in Ohio recently got caught running a canned-food drive for its own employees.

The story’s been picked up far and wide, but I thought it would be useful to look closely at how three different outlets handled the story.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported it first, and it’s a miracle anyone actually read past the poor headline and ponderous lede to get to the news.

Here’s the third-rate attempt at a clickbait headline the Advance Publications paper slapped on it:

Is Walmart’s request of associates to help provide Thanksgiving dinner for co-workers proof of low wages?

And here’s the lede, which still suffers from a kind of bloated newspaperese even after the Newhouses’ cultural revolution:

The storage containers are attractively displayed at the Walmart on Atlantic Boulevard in Canton. The bins are lined up in alternating colors of purple and orange. Some sit on tables covered with golden yellow tablecloths. Others peer out from under the tables.

This isn’t a merchandise display. It’s a food drive—not for the community, but for needy workers.

Fortunately for the Plain Dealer and for food-bank-reliant Walmart workers everywhere, the news was too good to mess up. Business Insider caught wind of it and showed Advance how the clickbait pros do it. The headline:

Wal-Mart Asks Workers To Donate Food To Its Needy Employees

BI’s lede gets straight to the news, bypassing the tempting storage-container scene-setter:

A Cleveland Wal-Mart store is holding a food drive — for its own employees.

“Please donate food items so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner,” reads a sign accompanied by several plastic bins.

On the downside, BI’s story is as thin as can be. Besides a Walmart flack quote, there’s essentially all aggregation and no reporting, its original story got a major fact wrong, and it offers very little context, though Henry Blodget chimed in with a pretty good post later. The Plain Dealer’s piece, poorly edited though it was, gives readers vastly more context and original reporting, including interviews with Walmart workers about their low wages.

Then there’s, ahem, Fox News. How would it propagandize this one? Here’s the headline:

Activists charge Walmart food drive shows greed, not compassion

The dadgum ACORN nuts are waging a War on Food Drives now? Outrageous.

Here’s Fox’s lede:

A food drive aimed at allowing Walmart employees to help each other during the holiday season is being denounced as a “moral outrage” by workers’ groups.

And three graphs down, the Walmart spin:

A Walmart spokesman said the collection bins are an example of how employees look out for each other, in this case, by collecting food for less fortunate co-workers.

When you make very little money, it’s almost impossible to save money. All it takes is one small unexpected expense to hammer a low-wage worker.

But in Fox’s telling, it’s the helping-each-other-out that lefties are outraged about, not the poverty wages that leave Walmart workers vulnerable to crisis in the first place. Let’s put it this way, they’re not running canned food drives for managers at HQ in Bentonville.

And so a story about a company controlled by four heirs worth a combined $130 billion whose poorly paid workers are constantly on the edge of disaster becomes one about neighbors helping neighbors—jus’ folks who don’t need the government or labor unions mucking things up.

It’s highly admirable that poorly paid Walmart employees are so giving. But Fox obscures the shame in the fact that they have to do so in the first place.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,