Discouting Wal-Mart

My long-time readers will know that I have sometimes questioned the rhetorical effect of Robert Greenwald’s agit-prop documentaries, such as Uncovered: The Truth about the War in Iraq and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. I’ve sometimes criticized Greenwald’s films for remaining too wedded to a single object of analysis (Fox News or Bush propaganda) without engaging in a broader critique: with Outfoxed, for example, a broader critique of media consolidation would have been beneficial, and with Uncovered, I would have liked a more thorough investigation of how certain concepts–such as nation and citizen–are mobilized, but my heistation regarding Greenwald’s docs rested primarily on what I now believe to be a misunderstanding of public discourse on my part. In a sense, I had assumed that Greenwald’s films merely provided a feel-good (feel-smart) experience for the people who attended teh house parties and that the more harmful political effect might be that the films would exacerbate the much-discussed (and over-hyped) red-blue divide (Tara McPherson has a thoughtful article on the many problems with this false construction of a red-blue divide, particulalry as it pertains to Katrina coverage).

I now want to look at Greenwald’s documentaries, partciuarly his forthcoming WAL-MART doc in a new light. Specifically, I’m intrigued by the ways in which Greenwald’s films provoke conversations about situations that might othrewise go relatively unchallenged or undiscussed. Certainly, Greenwald isn’t the first person to talk about the harmful effects of the world’s largest retailer, but if success can b measured in part by pre-release publicity, then Greenwald has already achieved something valuable with this documentary.

Among other examples, The Reeler repeats some gossip-publicity published in the New York Times about a Wal-Mart “consultant” who showed up at the film’s NYC premiere armed with a camera-phone. In Salon, Andrew O’Hehir goes beyond the metroplex to review Wal-Mart, noting that Wal-Mart (the company, not the film) has been the subject of negative articles in the New York Times in five of the past seven days. Wal-Mart even has a “war room” devoted to contesting the documentary’s accusations.

This recognition doesn’t mean that I won’t be critical of Greenwald’s documentaries from time to time, but I do think it’s easy to underestimate the effects of his films in shifting the discourse.


  1. Jim Gilliam Said,

    November 4, 2005 @ 2:04 pm

    Bingo! And there isn’t a more cost-effective (or less bloody) way to do it, either.

    I think of it as hacking the media. Our films exist in an elaborate media and cultural ecosystem, and their purpose extends far beyond the theater or living room.

    $2 million, and the largest company in the world is completely freaking out.

    Jim Gilliam
    producer, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

  2. Chuck Said,

    November 6, 2005 @ 4:40 pm

    Yep, it’s an impressive achievement, and while I’m still looking forward to the film, I think it has already achieved a lot, simply by being made.

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