Documentaries Offer Two Views of Wal-Mart

This week, two documentaries about Wal-Mart are being released on DVD. One is harshly critical of the giant retailer, while the other finds much that is positive in the company. The films come out as Wal-Mart itself is doing more to respond to criticism.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Two new DVDs are entering wide release this week, but you won't find them at your local Wal-Mart. The dueling documentaries are about the giant retailer. One is harshly critical; the other defends Wal-Mart as a champion of free-market economics. Both films come as Wal-Mart itself is doing more to respond to its most outspoken critics. NPR's Scott Horsley has this report.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

The anti-Wal-Mart movie will play on thousands of screens this coming week in private homes, union halls, schools and churches, like the United Church of Christ in San Diego's Mission Hills neighborhood. Education director Santina Poor says the church regularly hosts discussions on both secular and religious topics. She sees the Wal-Mart screening as a little bit of both.

Ms. SANTINA POOR (Education Director, United Church of Christ): "Jesus was a low-wage worker," I think, was one of the quotes in our UCC paper regarding this Wal-Mart movie. And, you know, we have to support our friends that are low-wage workers and find a way to help them out.

HORSLEY: Wal-Mart's treatment of low-wage workers is a major theme of Robert Greenwald's movie, "The High Cost of Low Price." Greenwald, whose past credits include a documentary about FOX News, interviews former Wal-Mart workers like Cathy Nemchik and Diane DeVoy. They complain the company's wages and benefits are so bad, many workers are forced to rely on public assistance.

(Soundbite of "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price")

Unidentified Woman #1: They're promoting people to get food stamps and Section 8 housing, and they're the ones that are using the system.

Unidentified Woman #2: It's pretty bad when you need to tell your employees that all these programs are...

Unidentified Woman #1: Are often available.

Unidentified Woman #2: ...are available for you because we're not paying you enough money.

HORSLEY: Workers are also at the center of a rival documentary titled "Why Wal-Mart Works," which premieres Monday in Rogers, Arkansas, not far from the company's headquarters. Director Ron Galloway, who also made a movie about POWs shown on public television, interviews grateful Wal-Mart workers like Sharawn(ph). She's a onetime drug user whose job helped her turn her life around.

(Soundbite of "Why Wal-Mart Works")

SHARAWN (Wal-Mart Employee): These are just tears of gratitude. I'm so grateful that God chose a man like Sam Walton to start a company such as Wal-Mart with some pure values.

HORSLEY: Galloway is clearly an admirer of Wal-Mart, but says the company provided no money for his film and doesn't even plan to stock the DVD.

Mr. RON GALLOWAY (Director, "Why Wal-Mart Works"): I have determined that the one thing they're not good at is PR and telling their own story. They're awesome at everything but that. The fact that they're depending on me to tell their story is evidence of the fact that they're not good at getting it out.

HORSLEY: But Wal-Mart is working harder these days to counter its critics. CEO Lee Scott says in the past, Wal-Mart was so busy minding the store, it was caught off-guard by criticism of its employee relations, its environmental record and its effects on mom-and-pop business. Vice President Bob McAdam says that's not the case anymore.

Mr. BOB McADAM (Vice President, Wal-Mart): The overall criticism of our company has been louder than we might have anticipated. It's not that we just started responding, but we are paying more attention to responding now than ever before.

HORSLEY: That newfound sensitivity is evident in a Wal-Mart memo about health benefits recently leaked to The New York Times. The memo evaluates possible changes in benefits in terms of cost, employee satisfaction and the company's reputation. The memo also concedes that Wal-Mart's costly health insurance premiums and the reliance of some employees on Medicaid have left the company open to criticism. Greenwald, the critical filmmaker, says Wal-Mart is taking its opponents more seriously now, but he dismisses the company's response.

Mr. ROBERT GREENWALD (Director, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price"): We're seeing change in spinning. We're seeing change in propaganda. We're seeing change in the charm offensive. But what everyone is looking for in a corporation of this size with this much impact on our country? Changed behavior.

HORSLEY: Wal-Mart's impact is huge. A study released earlier this month shows the highly efficient retailer keeps prices down at its own stores and others, saving the average household more than $2,300 last year. But a separate study suggests Wal-Mart drives down wages and benefits, especially among unionized grocery workers. The balancing act between low prices, satisfied workers and a good reputation is one that Wal-Mart is still wrestling with. Santina Poor also tries to find that balance in her own shopping, but admits she hasn't found it yet.

Ms. POOR: When I first had kids, I was like, `I'm not going to buy any of these little toys made overseas by manufacturing companies that are, you know, paying their workers pennies.' And, of course, you know, that lasted about a day. And so--you know, or--it's just expensive and it's hard. It takes a lot of time. But I think every little bit we can do kind of makes a difference.

HORSLEY: Poor's church is not planning to screen the pro-Wal-Mart movie this coming week, but she's open to the idea of showing it sometime in the near future. Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

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