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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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November 1996


Trying to Brake the Chains
Positive Aspects of Superstores Ignored

Network reporters don't like chain stores. Large book sellers (Barnes & Noble, Borders), retail outlets (Wal-Mart), and lately coffee houses (Starbucks) get nothing but bad national press when they move into communities to sell their wares. Journalists focus incessantly on the supposed threats such stores pose to smaller stores and small-town lifestyles. But the same journalists show a remarkable lack of curiosity about why the chain stores have done so well in the first place.

MediaNomics first noticed the trend a few years ago with coverage of large bookstores. CBS reporter Richard Threlkeld, for instance, profiled Elizabeth Bogner, manager of Books & Co. in New York, who said superstores were "taking away sales we need to keep going." Threlkeld also warned viewers that consumers would lose out. "There's a real concern," he said, "that [this] will have a chilling effect on all those books that aren't big, profitable best-sellers." While Threlkeld did include one soundbite noting how consumers might benefit from superstores, he overshadowed this by saying: "If the corner bookstore goes the way of the mom-and-pop grocery, we'll have lost something, too."

But what was lost was a mystery. John Pitts of Doubleday Publishers told MediaNomics that superstores are able to carry more titles, which include not only best-sellers but mid-list and back-list books. Corner stores carry fewer than 1,000 titles, Pitts explained, while superstores carry up to 50,000.

Wal-Mart has received similar treatment from national reporters. "The fact is," CBS's Morley Safer told 60 Minutes viewers last year, "Wal-Mart is accused of purposely turning the downtown of small town after small town into ghost town after ghost town." Safer interviewed a business owner whose store failed after Wal-Mart came to his town. The "bitter fact" was that the man "couldn't buy bikes wholesale for what Wal-Mart was selling them retail." Opponents of Wal-Mart were depicted as defenders of small-town America while Wal-Mart was "constantly on the prowl, looking for new pastures to concrete."

Safer didn't point out the work of some economists who would differ with this morality-play presentation. Iowa State University's Kenneth Stone, for instance, told readers of the May, 1995 Reason that the decline of small towns was a long-term trend. "We started seeing the demise of downtowns in the 1920s and 1930s, when cars started to become more popular," Stone pointed out. Noting the overall increase in sales in areas where Wal-Marts open, Stone argued that "a lot of local merchants have become better merchants because of the level of competition."

The latest victim of the networks' anti-chain mentality is Starbucks. ABC's Deborah Weiner, on the November 10 World News Tonight, highlighted opposition in Katonah, New York to a new Starbucks store. She interviewed a small cafe owner who said she didn't mind the competition, but was opposed to "the mini-malling of America." Weiner said that Katonah risked losing "a waitress like Sue, who knows you well" and that "many people here fear that a national chain...will destroy Katonah's unique character." Many sense, she argued, "that national retailers are taking over."

She didn't say how they were taking over; specifically by giving people a product, service, or atmosphere that they want. In a more balanced story for the September 16 Newsweek, Jolie Solomon detailed the growing "backlash" against chains like Starbucks, but at least says that "for long-suffering American coffee drinkers, [Starbucks growth] is probably welcome news."

For network reporters, the choices millions make daily in the marketplace matter less than the few loud voices who oppose those choices.


Rich Noyes


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