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Interesting column by Randy Hammer, executive editor of the Pensacola News Journal, in which he writes about the decision by a local Wal-Mart store to get rid of the newspaper racks from which the paper was sold – because a newspaper columnist, Mark O’Brien, dared to be critical of the company.

O’Brien wrote a column in which he addressed, according to Hammer, “the downside of the cheap prices that Sam Walton's empire has brought to America. We all pay a little less, and sometimes a lot less, at the grocery store and department store because of Mr. Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart.”

O’Brien wrote that Pensacola should "be more than the Wal-Mart kind of town we're becoming - cheap and comfy on the surface, lots of unhappiness and hidden costs underneath.”

And, O’Brien wrote: "I like Wal-Mart prices the same as the next shopper, but there's a downside, too. Many Wal-Mart employees lack the fringe benefits and insurance that makes the difference between existence and a good quality of life. Yet, we customers pay a surcharge from a different pocket — subsidizing health care for Wal-Mart employees who can't afford it."

O’Brien cited Thomas L. Friedman’s “The World Is Flat,” which says that “more than 10,000 children of Wal-Mart employees are in a Georgia health care program, which costs the state's taxpayers nearly $10 million a year. Mark also pointed out that a New York Times report found that 31 percent of the patients at a North Carolina hospital were Wal-Mart employees on Medicaid.”

Well, Wal-Mart wasn’t pleased. Hammer writes that a local Wal-Mart executive, Bob Hart, called to say he didn’t like O’Brien’s column, didn’t like a lot of O’Brien’s columns, and that unless Hammer was willing to fire him, the News Journal would have to pull its newspaper racks off Wal-Mart’s property.

Hammer suggests that this is a surprising demand, considering that “Wal-Mart is a company that wraps itself in red, white and blue,” and freedom of the press is sort of an American tradition. He writes:

“I might understand it if Wal-Mart said I ought to fire Mark because what he said wasn't accurate. But that isn't the case. Mark accurately reported that there are 10,000 children of Wal-Mart employees in a health-care program that is costing Georgia taxpayers nearly $10 million a year.

“Shouldn't we talk about that?

“When we stop listening to people on the other side of the fence, when we try to silence and even punish people for thinking differently than we do and raising facts and figures we don't like, well, we won't be red, white and blue anymore.

“That's why Mark still has a job and you can't buy a Pensacola News Journal at Wal-Mart anymore.”
KC's View:
Good for Hammer and good for the Pensacola News Journal.

Under other circumstances, O’Brien might have found himself sharing a cellblock with Judith Miller. (Don’t get us started…)

The good news is that Wal-Mart has reversed itself, and will once again sell the News Journal in front of its store.

Via an email to the paper, Wal-Mart spokesperson Sharon Weber said:

“We did make an error in judgment by removing the papers from our stores…I am unaware of any prior instance in which a book or periodical was removed from our shelves because it was critical of our company.”

However, Weber refused to say whether any action would be taken against Hart, who ordered the removal of the paper racks.

Remarkably, all this was going on as the Wall Street Journal was writing yesterday about how Wal-Mart was trying to be more open about its affairs and upfront with its critics.

Was the Pensacola move an aberration? Or was it an accurate reflection of an arrogant corporate culture that refuses to tolerate criticism, that is unwilling to admit that it is wrong?