March 22, 2013

See those nasty comments about Wal-Mart above? They’re not around anymore.

They originally came in response to a “story” that the Huffington Post yesterday published about the retailer. Quotation marks are critical here. The piece of copy was an interview with an outgoing executive of Wal-Mart, Leslie Dach—and if a “story” is something that has balanced and multiple perspectives, this one doesn’t qualify. Here’s a sampling of the questions posed to Dach:

The Huffington Post: What do you consider to be your most noteworthy accomplishments in terms of transforming Walmart’s culture and placing an emphasis on social good? What was successful? What wasn’t?
HuffPost: When you took the position in 2006, Walmart’s public image was struggling. Did that give you pause or make your decision more difficult?
HuffPost: Can you talk a bit about your specific agenda at Walmart, from sustainability and sustainable agriculture to nutrition and women’s economic empowerment?
HuffPost: When you were instituting changes regarding things like philanthropy or energy conservation, did you face much internal resistance or opposition? If you did, how did you manage it?

The Wal-Mart executive answered those questions in the manner of an executive, saying pretty much that Wal-Mart is a great corporate citizen. A sample: “I think, to me, the most noteworthy accomplishment is being able to show that a big business and particularly one that has a reputation for watching its pennies, can take on these large social issues in a big way and make a big difference, but also build a stronger business at the same time.”

That kind of schlock won’t work with Huffington Post readers, who can sniff out a puff piece. They let their voices be heard. Roundabout 5:15 p.m. yesterday, the Erik Wemple Blog saw nearly 100 comments on the bottom of this execrable example of news tipping over into the realm of PR.

This morning? One: “Walmart is a great company which gave over 2 million jobs to Americans and they provide products at very low prices for everyone to enjoy.” Since then, the space has been filling in slowly with more-skeptical comments.

But what gives here? Was the grand lefty Huffington Post trying to kiss and make up with Wal-Mart?

It certainly appears that way. Remember: Back in November, Wal-Mart broke up with Huffington Post, saying that the news operation wasn’t playing fair with its deeply reported stories about the gigantic retailer’s workforce policies: “We have made a business decision not to participate in Huffington Post articles going forward due to the one-sided reporting and unfair and unbalanced editorial decisions made by Huffington Post reporters and editors.”

David Tovar, a Wal-Mart spokesman, told us yesterday that the ban on cooperation with Huffington Post actually ended at the close of 2012 and that Wal-Mart had been working with the site in the early months of 2013. A Huffington Post reporter, however, reported surprise at hearing of such a thaw.

Rhoades Alderson, a spokesman for Huffington Post, had this to say about the comment-scrubbing: “We had a breakdown in our Julia technology, our automated moderation system, and comments were originally posted that should not have been. Our moderators removed some comments manually but appear to have gone too far, so we’re putting them back up. It’s never our practice to take down comments that have been published, but in this case some of them never should have made it through the system and onto the site. We’re working on the problem.”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.