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Taking a screen test

November 05, 2005

JUST THE SLANT, MA'AM. Don't bother me with the facts.

That seems to be the mantra for right-wing talk and "news" shows on cable TV and the radio, which seldom report the other side of the story or distort it when they do. The success of filmmakers such as Michael Moore has given the left its answer: the partisan documentary, which is every bit as devoid of objectivity or fairness. The latest example of the genre is Robert Greenwald's hit piece, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price," which debuted in a highly limited theatrical release on Friday.

Greenwald has previously taken on such topics as the 2000 presidential election, the Iraq war and Fox News. Wal-Mart is his easiest target yet.

The company is an icon of a particularly muscular brand of capitalism, wresting the lowest possible costs and expenses out of suppliers, employees and even local governments. Wal-Mart's ruthless tactics mean that its success is widespread and its victims legion.

Greenwald's documentary tells the stories of a handful of them. There is the owner of a small-town, family-owned hardware store forced out of business by the arrival of a Wal-Mart store; a Wal-Mart employee forced on government assistance because her job doesn't pay enough for her to afford health coverage; a Chinese worker at a Wal-Mart supplier working under horrible conditions for less than $3 a day; a woman assaulted at gunpoint in a Wal-Mart parking lot while the store's security cameras -- allegedly installed to prevent employees from unionizing rather than to protect customers -- went unmonitored.

By the end of the film, one is convinced that the founding Walton family would eat their children for a buck, while Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott is a slightly less sympathetic figure than Emperor Palpatine.

Reality, though, is a bit less black and white. Left unmentioned are Wal-Mart's positive effects: Its low prices benefit low-income people and help keep inflation low; the company's incredible efficiency has had a measurable effect on U.S. productivity; the workers complaining about Wal-Mart's low wages might not have a job at all if not for the company.

In part as a response to Greenwald's film, Wal-Mart has recently created an in-house public relations war room, recruiting former presidential advisors and other experts to counter the image assault. It is promoting another film, "Why Wal-Mart Works & Why That Makes Some People Crazy," and has challenged Greenwald to screen the two films side by side.

There's no reason to suppose the other film is a model of objectivity either. But viewed together, they may actually represent a balanced view of the biggest and most controversial retailer in the world.

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