The producer and director of "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" has a new target: Wal-Mart.
Taking On a Giant (Whistleblowers Welcome)
By DAVID M. HALBFINGER
LOS ANGELES, May 31 - He's taken on the Bush administration, the war in Iraq and the Fox News Channel. He's forged alliances with grass-roots liberal groups like MoveOn.org, liberal research groups, even liberal churches.
Yet Robert Greenwald, the producer and director of "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," thinks his next documentary-cum-indictment will appeal to gun-toting Bush voters in the Bible belt as much as to the latte-drinking lefties who made his last movie a hit at house parties on both coasts.
His new project? "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price."
The diminutive Mr. Greenwald, 61, is leading this assault on the retailing behemoth of Bentonville, Ark., from a converted hot-sheets motel in Culver City, Calif. There, where MGM executives once conducted their trysts, he and a dozen or so young producers and editors are compiling digital video from interviewing teams across the country, while spreading the word through advocacy groups and labor unions to invite whistleblowers to come forward.
Their plan is to depict what they and a growing number of critics perceive to be Wal-Mart's sins against society: unfair competition and erosion of the fabric of communities; exploitation of its American workers, and of the government welfare programs many rely on to supplement their wages and benefits; union busting; reliance on suppliers with sweatshops overseas; and environmental negligence - among others.
They also intend to show how the retailer exerts its outsized influence on American culture through the so-called "Wal-Mart effect," by limiting the choices of products like clothing, music - and movies - that are available to consumers.
"Nobody else has a million and a half workers, nobody has 3,500 stores and one opening every day," Mr. Greenwald said. "You may say: I don't care, I don't shop at Wal-Mart, why should it affect me? Well it will, because it'll affect wages, it'll affect health care, it'll affect where your tax dollars go. There are so many impacts it has on all of us as citizens."
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman, Sarah Clark, whose responsibilities include "reputation management," said she was unaware of Mr. Greenwald or his movie until she was contacted for this article. She noted later that a campaign against Wal-Mart affiliated with the grocery workers' union, which has tried for years to organize Wal-Mart workers, was promoting Mr. Greenwald's film project on the Web.
"It would be difficult to comment on a film we haven't seen, but we'd question the fairness of a documentary that is being tied to the Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign," she said. "Some of our critics are open-minded people who are genuinely concerned about issues and want to make the world a better place. We listen, learn and try to work with them toward common goals. Other groups simply pull publicity stunts to further their own narrow self-interest."
Mr. Greenwald is hardly the first to look for a dark side to the company that has become known to millions as a cheap source of staples and minor luxuries. Last November PBS's "Frontline" series showed "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?," a 60-minute program produced by Rick Young and Hedrick Smith, a former correspondent for The New York Times. And last year The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a series that investigated the retailer's practices and policies.
Yet Mr. Greenwald, like his fellow muckraking documentarians Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, promises to up the ante by putting the quest for impact squarely ahead of journalistic convention. He said he chose to discuss his project - which has until now operated in secret - on the eve of the company's annual shareholders meeting this Friday, for instance, in hopes of kicking up as much dust there as possible.
Asked whether his documentary would strive for fairness, Mr. Greenwald said he would offer top Wal-Mart executives the chance to be interviewed but did not see a reason to give them equal screen time. "I don't feel an obligation, because they are spending $2 million a day now telling their side of the story," he said, asserting that Wal-Mart spent that much on public relations.
Mr. Greenwald, who kept "Outfoxed" secret from the Fox network until just before its release, said he had kept his Wal-Mart project under wraps until now, and would not reveal details about his project until it is finished in a few months, lest Wal-Mart try to interfere through litigation or by intimidating workers from cooperating.
Ms. Clark, the Wal-Mart representative, said the project's secrecy was a reason to doubt its credibility. "We'd question anyone who was writing a book who would not come to us and ask us for our own facts," she said. "And I'd certainly question the accuracy or the fairness of a documentary that didn't even contact us."
Mr. Greenwald said that some 15 current Wal-Mart workers who agreed to help had backed out for fear of retaliation by the company, ignoring his promises of anonymity in exchange for interviews or incriminating documents, videotape or e-mail messages.
He added that he had lost two investors in the project, both of them Hollywood figures who Mr. Greenwald said backed out rather than risk Wal-Mart's rejection of their other films, as the company is the world's largest DVD retailer. But he refused to name them or any other investors, saying only that he had so far raised $700,000 out of a budget of about $1.6 million. He said he would raise the rest by the same means he hopes to distribute his finished movie: through a series of partnerships with like-minded organizations and by marketing over the Web.
Mr. Greenwald did this successfully with his documentary "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," for which the Center for American Progress, a Democratic research group, held press screenings in Washington, and which MoveOn.org advertised on its Web site for $29.95. This time, he has aligned with church groups, including the United Church of Christ, which is concentrated in the Northeast, Midwest and West; with the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, a trade group of gas station and convenience store operators; and with the National Education Association. Each for its own reasons had already set its sights on Wal-Mart, but now they are planning to screen Mr. Greenwald's movie in church sanctuaries, at school teach-ins and in the living rooms of small-business owners.
Mr. Greenwald, who has another, more profit-oriented life as a maker of television movies like "The Burning Bed" and theatrical films like "Steal This Movie," acknowledges that he has mainly preached to a partisan choir in his earlier documentaries, "Uncovered" and "Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election," which he directed, and "Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties," which he produced.
But he said he chose Wal-Mart as his next subject because he saw it as a mainly red-state company. And in thinking about how to appeal to a red-state audience, he said in an interview, he realized this could be a way to make common cause with the socially conservative base of the Republican Party.
"The social values people - I think the economic issues that we're talking about absolutely are in sync with them," he said. "To me, it's an anomaly or a contradiction that some of these folks are voting against their economic self-interest. But in the Wal-Mart fight, we're seeing that whether you voted for Bush or have an N.R.A. hat, or are all your life Republican, when Wal-Mart comes to town, they build or drive you out of business, or your neighbor, or they put a road where it used to be your front yard - that's an equalizer."