The front page of Saturday’s New York Times displayed an egregious example of perhaps the most utilized propaganda technique other than the big lie: selection of details, facts or experts to distort reality. It works best, as in the Times article, when the writer does not state the point of distortion, but lets the facts or experts selected do the talking.
Here, then, are the first three paragraphs of the Times story in question (or should I say, propaganda document), which reports Wal-Mart’s latest efforts to open a store in New York City
“It persuaded the makers of All laundry detergent to shrink their bottles by more than half to generate less waste. It got thousands of farmers to stop using pesticides. And it encouraged millions of consumers to dump incandescent light bulbs in favor of energy-sipping compact fluorescents.
But for all of its arm-twisting powers of persuasion, Wal-Mart has been unable to achieve the simplest of ambitions: to set up shop in New York City, America’s biggest urban retail market.
It is a galling failure for a company that transcended its humble rural roots to become a global behemoth.”
When you get done with the first paragraph, don’t you just love this environmentally friendly company that persuades others to help clean up the environment?
If you love this Wal-Mart, you might admire the following historical figure: “He turned around his country’s lagging economy in less than five years. He created an organization that helps young people learn about the joys of outdoor activities and the importance of high ethical standards. In negotiations with the leaders of other countries, he obtained everything that his country needed while giving away few concessions.”
Don’t you just love this guy? Don’t you wish he was our leader? Or did you guess that I’m describing Adolph Hitler?
I think most readers understand that I’m not comparing Wal-Mart to Hitler. What I’m doing is using the same distorting propaganda technique of fact selection to make Hitler look more admirable that the Times writer Elizabeth A. Harris uses to describe Wal-Mart.
In distorting reality by selection of facts, the subtext of Harris’ message is that Wal-Mart takes its corporate responsibilities seriously. Besides suggesting explicitly that Wal-Mart is a jolly green giant, the use of specific words—“persuaded,” “encouraged”—undercuts the common image of Wal-Mart as a big bully.
Here is another way that Harris might have begun her story, using the same rhetorical device of listing facts to create a contrast between what the powerful company has been able to accomplish elsewhere and its long-term inability to take a bite out of the Big Apple: “It used its purchasing power to hardball entertainment companies to sanitize the lyrics of best-selling music CDs. It has successfully kept unions out of its workforce with a combination of questionable activities and massive spending. It has driven thousands of mom-and-pop stores and small chains out of business while destroying the downtowns of smaller cities all over the country.”
My paragraph is a more relevant picture of what Wal-Mart has wrought, focused on big-picture actions as opposed to some tactical decisions Wal-Mart made to save money that happened to also help clean the environment. My version also suggests why the contrast to the New York situation is so poignant: because Wal-Mart is used to throwing its weight around and getting its way, and that has never happened in New York.
The reporter is attempting to elicit admiration for Wal-Mart and sympathy for its plight in the Big Apple. But to do so, she has to ignore both Wal-Mart’s long and negative past as an employer and a competitor.
The article goes on to describe Wal-Mart’s NYC efforts, puts the new NYC campaign in the context of the company trying to sell “liberal America,” and quotes numerous experts.
What the article doesn’t do is explain why New Yorkers and the existing New York political and governmental infrastructure are so hostile to Wal-Mart. Let’s start with the low salaries and Ebenezer Scrooge-like benefits the company pays most of its employees. And then there’s the fact that in Manhattan, and to a lesser degree in the other boroughs, you can see a lot of small and regional stores selling all kinds of interesting and different things in the streets along side the national chains with the standardized offerings. These stores give dozens, if not hundreds of New York neighborhoods an individual character that is lacking in so many American residential areas nowadays. Or maybe it’s that New Yorkers are less willing than other Americans to put up with censorship or to suffer companies accused of discrimination against any group, as Wal-Mart has been so accused numerous times.
Whatever it is, Wal-Mart and New York City are completely mismatched. As a once-and-always New Yorker, I hope that Wal-Mart loses its latest battle to enter the city, and worry that it appears that this time out the Arkansas monster has The New York Times on its side.