OLD Media Moves

Who got the story right on the Bangladesh factory fire?

December 9, 2012

Posted by Adam Levy

Last Wednesday, on a flight to Washington DC, I read an article in both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times about the horrific fire in Bangladesh two weeks ago in which 112 people died in a factory producing clothes for Wal-Mart.

Both articles were respectful of the tragedy and the magnitude of the disaster. That’s where the similarities end — and left me thinking one publication dropped the ball on reporting this crucially important story.

I read the Journal first and my takeaway was that poor ol’ Wal-Mart is almost an innocent bystander in this tragedy. The article seemed to point fingers at the retailer’s supplier, which, reportedly, skirted the rules for informing Wal-Mart that it was subcontracting some of its work.

Here’s what the Journal wrote:

Wal-Mart, for instance, says that it is the suppliers’ responsibility to use factories approved by the company, and it warns in an extensive manual that suppliers can be banned from doing business with it if they fail to get that approval.

Simco (the supplier) was familiar with those rules, because it has been making clothes for Wal-Mart for more than a decade and sells 70% of its production to the company, the senior Simco executive said. Yet he said Simco sent the girls’ shorts order to Tuba Group without Wal-Mart’s prior approval.

Many of the Journal’s assertions were sourced to documents on various companies’ websites. The story wrapped up with an old comment by a Wal-Mart executive saying it isn’t financially feasible to help improve fire safety in Bangladeshi factories. A Wal-Mart spokesman said that comment was taken out of context.

The Times’ coverage was markedly different. It was direct and damning. “Documents Indicate Walmart Blocked Safety Push in Bangladesh” was the headline. It cited documents showing that a Walmart official in 2011 played the lead role in blocking an effort to have global retailers pay more for apparel to help Bangladesh factories improve their electrical and fire safety.

And it left me convinced that Wal-Mart knew that the subcontractor had been producing clothes for the company. Here’s a paragraph from the Times article:

“It was not a single rogue supplier as Walmart has claimed — there were several different U.S. suppliers working for Walmart in that factory,” Mr. Nova said. “It stretches credulity to think that Walmart, famous for its tight control over its global supply chain, didn’t know about this.”

I don’t know if the Times nailed this story and the WSJ was too soft. But that’s the impression I got from reading both. And this is no ordinary story. This is important and newspapers of record and influence HAVE to get this right. Why? Because getting this story right can raise pressure on Wal-Mart and other global retailers to help fund fire safety measures throughout the world, and, hopefully, avert a tragedy like this from ever happening again.

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