My Visit to Doha (Via Satellite)

Al Jazeera English is the anti-Fox.

In contrast to the ineptitude and thinly veiled hostility of Fox Business Network, my recent dealings with Al Jazeera English were all polite, efficient, and friendly.

It all started when the National Organization for Women (NOW) hosted a "Walmartopia night" in September. NOW was interested in "Walmartopia" because it's a show that illustrates the deplorable working conditions for women who produce Wal-Mart products as well as the issue of sex discrimination in the United States. NOW named Wal-Mart a "Merchant of Shame " back in 2002 as part of its campaign for economic justice. We were privileged to host a talkback with NOW's Executive Vice President Olga Vives and Martha Burk, chair of the Corporate Accountability Task Force with the National Council of Women's Organizations. Burk is also the author of Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in Corporate America and What Can Be Done About It. After the show and talkback, Al Jazeera's show Everywoman contacted me and asked for an interview.

That's how I found myself traversing the far west side of Madison, Wisconsin, at 6:30 on a still-dark Halloween morning. I spoke to Al Jazeera by remote (so no report on what kind of coffee they drink) from a local TV studio. They were in Doha, which is the capital city of Qatar. I looked and talked into a camera and could hear the voice of the interviewer, Shiulie Gosh, through an earpiece. Gosh is a class act. Read about her at Al Jazeera's site. Unfortunately, I could also hear a very loud echo of my own voice throughout, which was a tremendous distraction.

A producer called me several weeks before the interview so the host would be prepared, and the questions were smart and open-ended. They asked about the content of Walmartopia and they also wanted to know what we hoped to accomplish by writing it. They understood that I am not an expert on Wal-Mart; I'm a playwright who wrote a musical comedy about Wal-Mart. Instead of stupid questions like, "Why is the show so anti-Wal-Mart," they asked why women around the world might care about the plight of American Wal-Mart workers. They wondered if Walmartopia was a comment on the perils of privatization. (In the imagined future of Walmartopia there's no independent media, schools, or army; it's just News-Mart, School-Mart, and National Security-Mart.) But no other reporters have picked up on the privatization issue, and few have concentrated on women's issues.

As always, post-interview, I can think of more to say:

As Wal-Mart has pointed out in the press, Walmartopia is a fictional musical. Yet, in real life, the average Wal-Mart clerk in the United States makes about $10 an hour. Here's an interesting comparison of Wal-Mart's wages and those of Costco, a company that has taken a different approach to wage and benefits. In Walmartopia, Vicki Latrell, the main character, struggles to pay the rent on a motel room where she and her daughter live while they save their money for a security deposit. This is not much of a stretch of the imagination.

Vicki and her daughter Maia need to use Wisconsin's state health care plan because they can't afford Wal-Mart's. Though Fox Happy Hour anchor Cody Willard claims it's not true Wal-Mart has steered its low-paid workers toward public assistance. According to Liza Featherstone's excellent book Selling Women Short, in 2004, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) released a report showing that for every 200 Wal-Mart employees, taxpayers paid $420,750 per year in public assistance. There's more info on the impact Wal-Mart has on taxpayers at the Wake-Up Wal-Mart site.

Wal-Mart currently faces the largest sex-discrimination suit in history (more than 1.6 million women.) As Featherstone details in her book, women make less money and are promoted less often than men at the corporation--at all levels. In addition to these economic insults, women at Wal-Mart have faced an old-boy culture that subjected them to comments like "God made Adam first," gatherings at Hooters and strip clubs, and admonitions to learn to hunt and fish if they want to get promoted. The saddest thing is people like Betty Dukes, who is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, really believed that Wal-Mart was a family, a corporation that was going to make good on its promises of providing a better life for its employees and customers.

Here in Wisconsin, Wal-Mart just opened up a new Supercenter, which is being lauded for its use of green technology. But is Wal-Mart really sustainable? Check out a thought-provoking report by the Big Box Collaborative that analyzes Wal-Mart's sustainability initiatives.

One last thing. Here's something Cody Willard got right: Wal-Mart doesn't pay its fair share of taxes. More food for thought is available at Wal-Mart Watch.

Wal-Mart does sell cheap stuff. And for many women whose responsibility it is to bring home food and household items, having only one place to shop is a blessing. But as the country's largest employer and the world's biggest supplier bully, Wal-Mart helps create the very poverty that it claims to be alleviating with its "everyday low prices."

Is Wal-Mart providing a route out of poverty or trapping people in it? You be the judge.