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Swiftboating the Wal-Mart Movie

10/12/2008 04:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From the moment Wal-Mart saw the trailer they went into full attack mode complete with a war room, political operatives and spin doctors. They may have an unlimited bank account (well, actually they OWN the bank), but this film will not be swift-boated.

The Wal-Mart war room is run by Edelman PR, the famed DC PR firm known for its 50-year defense of the tobacco industry, and is staffed with people adept at feeding this echo chamber. From Mike Deaver, Ronald Reagan's chief of staff and image guru to Mike Krempasky, a right-wing political blogger/operative with ties to key Republican dirty-tricksters such as Morton Blackwell and Richard Viguerie.

Before the film was even released, they came up with 10 pages and a video power point presentation attacking not only the trailer, but also every other film Robert Greenwald has ever made with 3 pages of bad reviews dating back to 1980.

So follow it along, this is classic right-wing echo in action.

It started with an article on right-wing media lapdog Brent Bozell's Cybercast News Service, and quickly led to simplistic character assassination techniques with the NY Post comparing Robert Greenwald to a Nazi propagandist, and Bill O'Reilly "accusing" Robert of being "just to the right of Fidel Castro ... just a ridiculous human being." You know, the shoot the messenger type stuff that political campaigns do all the time.

Then once they saw the film, the war room released 28 pages of material and a video news release with soundbites ready-made for the evening news. The centerpiece was a prolonged attack on the Hunter family story. The war room was able to convince Byron York, the author of "The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy" which includes an entire chapter trashing Robert Greenwald, to pick up the story and follow the talking points. He convinced his buddy Brit Hume at Fox News to have him on, then another bow-tie conservative Tucker Carlson echoed, and now John Tierney, a columnist for the New York Times. Echo Echo!

All of this is an effort to discount the non-political movie reviewers who are glowing about the film.

Entertainment Weekly: An "investigative outcry driven by stringent reporting rather than attitude."

New York Times: "'The High Cost of Low Price' makes its case with breathtaking force."

Los Angeles Times: "An engrossing, muckraking documentary ... but if you're expecting an angry diatribe, you're going to be disappointed."

Toronto Star: "Wal-Mart says the documentary will have limited appeal beyond the 'special interests' that Greenwald represents. Wal-Mart is wrong."

Boston Globe: "By the final credits you may want to picket Sam Walton's grave."

What is most surprising is how out of touch these right-wing critics are with many in the conservative grassroots who are embracing the film. Here is just one example from emails we've received.

Deanna Zandt in San Francisco: "My dad, a self-described blue collar 'ultra-conservative' and big fan of both Sean Hannity and G. Gordon Liddy, was already fed up with Wal-Mart's ruining of small town businesses, but he said the movie really opened his eyes as to just how bad things were. He thought it was really well-made and wants all of his friends to see it, too."

Why is the right-wing attack machine so intent on destroying a film that raises serious issues conservatives have long had -- the aggressive pursuit of corporate welfare to the tune of billions of dollars of taxpayer money, the off-shoring of American jobs, and the neglect for customer's safety? In another time, the conservative elite would be rushing to embrace a film defending family business from unfair big business destruction. A film with more Republicans than Democrats in it.

Since this is the latest echo to come out, let's pick apart John Tierney's column piece by piece:

If you've seen the anti-Wal-Mart documentary playing at churches and colleges and union halls, you have learned about the people here in Amish farm country who couldn't stop Wal-Mart from ruining their simple way of life.

That is not what the film says, and certainly not its intent. Middlefield was chosen as a location not because of the Amish or any symbolism about a simple way of life, but because we wanted a small town that had not already been affected by Wal-Mart, which is actually quite difficult to find.

The film is about Wal-Mart's relentless greed and how Wal-Mart uses its size to hurt family business all across the country.

And right off the bat, notice how Tierney tries to dismiss even the tone of the film. Is he suggesting Wal-Mart does not destroy family business all around the country!? Even Wal-Mart acknowledges that.

The film, ''Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,'' focuses on H & H Hardware, a family-owned business in this small town in northeastern Ohio. Its anguished owner explains that he needs a loan to survive, but complains that the bank has refused him because Wal-Mart's pending arrival has depressed the value of his property.

Why make fun of a man who lost everything to the Wal-Mart invasion? Anguished?

He shows a rack of booklets being distributed by an Amish customer: ''How Wal-Mart Is Destroying America.'' But there is no stopping the giant. The film shows a headline, ''Wal-Mart Descends On Middlefield!,'' followed by bulldozers in action.

Accompanied by the mournful twangs of a guitar, H & H slowly goes out of business. An Amish horse and buggy is shown passing the moribund store, followed by images of empty shelves and the lights being turned off.

It's a sad story. But it's not exactly the one you hear if you talk to the Amish customers now shopping at Middlefield Hardware, the new store in the same building where H & H operated. They will tell you the new store is a big improvement over the old one.

Why did Tierney only talk to people who were shopping at the new store? Yes, he's not a journalist, but this is like doing a poll for an election at the party headquarters! He was given the opportunity to speak to others, and he refused.

The store was opened last month by Jay Negin, a local resident who bought the building despite the new Wal-Mart. He told me that the building's appraised value, rather than being hurt by Wal-Mart's opening in May, is higher now than it was last year.

Maybe the banks are more optimistic these days with all the media attention on Middlefield and visiting right-wing columnists with expense accounts, but is Tierney accusing Jon Hunter of lying? Did he investigate, check dates, banks or just anything resembling research? This is shoddy, unfair journalism.

He scoffed at the notion that Wal-Mart put his predecessor out of business, as did some former employees and customers of the old store. They told me that the business had been floundering for years because of management mistakes.

So a present owner trashes the previous owner. Why did Tierney not speak to others who have the exact opposite point-of-view? Why did he not acknowledge there are many in town who see it differently. Why is he doing Wal-Mart's bidding in trashing the honest, hard-working Hunters?

Don Hunter, Jon Hunter's father, and the founder of H&H: "I've seen a lot of small communities crucified and forced out. Ma and pa operations that have been in business for years that are out on the street, that have had to close their doors just because of one entity. It appears that is their intent -- come into a community and force everybody out."

It actually closed three months before Wal-Mart opened, a fact not made clear in the documentary.

Not clear to the political right-wing attack machines thanks to the Wal-Mart war room, but perfectly clear to viewers and movie critics. Only because Tierney is following the war room's talking points is he seeing it this way. If you look at the film without hearing the attacks, you will see it for what it is. The film never states the Wal-Mart store has opened, using the words "descends" instead of "arrived" and punctuating the sequence with the dramatic use of a bulldozer all meant to reinforce that the Wal-Mart store has just broken ground. This is about as obvious as you can get without using a narrator, which is a device Robert never uses in his documentaries.

The Cleveland Plain-Dealer fell for this Wal-Mart distortion, but issued a prompt correction.

The former owner, Jon Hunter, while insisting to me that Wal-Mart had hurt his prospects, also said that he had been losing customers well before Wal-Mart because he had made bad decisions and couldn't afford to keep his shelves stocked.

Notice how Tierney's playing with words here. Hunter is "insisting" that Wal-Mart "hurt his prospects." The owner insisted on this, yet it's not accurate to portray it that way in a film? Huh?

Here is Hunter's full statement issued in response the Wal-Mart war room attacks: "At the same time that Wal-Mart announced they were coming to Middlefield, I was counting on a new business plan and bank loan to continue to support my hardware store - the loans depended on the value of my business and the building. When I went to secure the loan, the appraiser devalued the building at a drastically lower price than I expected - this was directly related to Wal-Mart coming into town. The appraiser told me that banks knock the values of other stores down when Wal-Mart opens in town since 'sooner or later there will be a bunch of empty buildings.' I was turned down for the loan. So, Wal-Mart was a related factor to my business closing down."

Tierney is blatantly distorting Hunter's words.

The new hardware store is doing fine, Negin told me. ''Am I concerned about Wal-Mart?'' he asked. ''Not really. If you're a struggling business, they can hurt you. But as long as you listen to your customers and give them the products and service they need, they'll stay loyal.''

And I'm sure Mr. Negin is happy for the free publicity the film has given him. Kenneth Stone's 2003 study in Mississippi showed a slow, steady decrease in sales at hardware stores after Wal-Mart arrives -- 14.9% decline after five years. Lucky for Negin, he didn't buy a grocery store because Retail Forward, an industry consulting firm, estimates that for every Wal-Mart Supercenter that opens in the next five years, two supermarkets will close.

He's hardly the only optimist in Middlefield. John Bruening, an optician who appeared in the documentary fretting about Wal-Mart, got so much unexpected business that he has opened another store.

This is really great, but John Bruening has not changed anything he said about Wal-Mart in the film.

Many of the business owners in Middlefield attended a seminar organized by Jon Hunter and put on by Kenneth Stone on how to compete once Wal-Mart arrives. This is a life support measure that many small family businesses are taking in order to fight the widespread and accepted facts of Wal-Mart devastating their businesses.

When I mentioned these inconvenient facts to the filmmaker, Robert Greenwald, he acknowledged he might not have chosen the best examples of Wal-Mart's victims. He urged me to look at the ''macro'' issues -- at the overall revenue lost by local merchants and the other social costs of Wal-Mart.

I asked Robert about their conversation and he said "a 45 minute phone call was reduced to this completely untrue and inaccurate statement."

I'll grant him that some businesses do suffer because of Wal-Mart. And yes, there are larger issues, like Wal-Mart's wages and benefits, that are worth considering in another column. But as long as we're in the town that Greenwald chose as a symbol of Wal-Mart's oppression, let's consider some of the macro effects here.

The macro effects like how in Maine, an average of $7.8 million was sucked out of local family businesses in the first year of a new Wal-Mart store in town. (Georgeanne Martz, 1999)

Weldon Nicholson, a store manager and 17-year Wal-Mart veteran: "We used to drive downtown and just say, well 'This will be a ghost town soon.' kinda proud of the fact that we worked for big Wal-Mart, we're coming into a small town, we are somebody, almost like we're taking over. 'To hell with it,' Wal-Mart will buy the damn town. We'll shut them down. We used to drive through towns going 'six months, three months, six months,' of when we'd be closing them."

And let's hold on a minute here and help Tierney out with research for these "larger issues" he is promising to cover in a future column.

He could start by talking to Susan Chambers, Wal-Mart's EVP for benefits: "Our critics are correct in some of their observations. Specifically, our coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of associates and their children on public assistance."

He could also ask Ms. Chambers what her plan is to solve this problem she identified: "The cost of an associate with seven years of tenure is almost 55 percent more than the cost of an associate with one year of tenure, yet there is no difference in his or her productivity." And her plans to "dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart."

There still may be Amish activists passing out booklets against Wal-Mart, but they seemed to be vastly outnumbered by the Amish who tie their horses to the posts outside the new Wal-Mart.

This is like comparing apples to fruit flies. The honest comparison is not those passing out leaflets versus shoppers, but Wal-Mart shoppers compared to non-Wal-Mart shoppers.

''I wasn't too happy about Wal-Mart coming,'' said Ada Schlabach, who was browsing through the plain-colored fabrics that the store stocks for Amish customers. ''I didn't know what it would do to the community -- would it make it more citylike? But I was surprised. It's kind of nice now. I like shopping here.''

Ben Yoder, an Amish carpenter who is 24, was there with two of his four children. ''We get all our diapers and wipes here because it's cheaper than anywhere else,'' he said. He and most of the Amish shoppers said the Wal-Mart was especially welcomed because they could reach it by horse, unlike the one more than 20 miles away.

Only 20 miles away! Wal-Mart deliberately opens stores close to each other specifically to shut down the local businesses. It also drives Wal-Mart's employees nuts because it depresses sales at the existing store just enough to keep profits below the threshold where they would get a small cut, turning the profit sharing program at Wal-Mart into nothing but yet another empty PR device for the war room to deploy.

''Wal-Mart isn't really a big issue with our people,'' said Eli Miller, who runs a sawmill. ''At first some were upset because they were scared by something new. But now they like being able to get everything here -- your name brand, your off brand, all in one place. I think of it as simple shopping.''

Of course there will always be individuals who will disagree, but John Tierney should be using his valued spaced in the New York Times to write about the real issue here -- how Wal-Mart affects family business all across America.

Since Wal-Mart insists on running this like a political campaign, the media should demand CEO Lee Scott come forward and debate the film. The war room should not be allowed to issue pages of attacks and then refuse to discuss it themselves relying on the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Byron York, and John Tierney to do their dirty work.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post linked Mike Krempasky to Roger Stone. He strongly denies this so I removed it.