The Maui News fails to give the whole story on Whole Foods
August 09, 2007
Sometimes, I think Harry Eagar of The Maui News wants my job. Ostensibly, his job as mainstream daily reporter is to provide readers with unbiased stories that fairly weigh all points of view to a given issue. But every so often, Eagar spits out a story that's about as balanced as a three-wheeled car. Called "advocacy journalism," these stories enthusiastically embrace a clear bias—usually for big corporations.
On Nov. 10, 2005, Eagar carried GMO-manufacturer Monsanto's water in "Sees a growth industry in isle." On Feb. 22, 2007, Eagar went to bat for Hawaii Superferry investor John Lehman in "Superferry official discusses operation and business model." And last week, on Aug. 2, Eagar shilled for supermarket giant Whole Foods in the explosively headlined piece "Store planned for Maui Mall."
"Whole Foods is not just a corporate version of a farmer's market," Eagar wrote of the big chain's plans to open a new store in the Maui Mall in late 2008 or early 2009. "It also promotes organic food. Whole Foods doesn't just sell tomatoes. It sells a philosophy that organic farming is 'the best method of promoting sustainable agriculture and protecting the environment and the farm worker.'"
Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with this—Maui Time, after all, publishes advocacy journalism all the time. But The Maui News doesn't usually publish advocacy pieces—except in special columns and editorials. And more importantly is the fact that even advocacy pieces should acknowledge arguments and evidence contrary to the stated point of view, and deal with them as best as possible.
On the recent Whole Foods story, this Eagar did not do. Instead, he chose to write about the company's plans to come to Maui, talk about how the store planned to buy produce from local Maui growers, speculate on whether the store would adopt energy efficient standards and talk up the chain's commitment to organic food.
Whole Foods is a $5 billion company currently operating 197 stores in the U.S., Canada and U.K. It's also trying to become even larger by merging with the Wild Oats chain of health food supermarkets, though that has yet to be approved by the Federal Trade Commission, which is concerned about anti-trust issues.
In truth, Whole Foods has done a remarkable job helping people eat healthier. In addition to selling organic, locally grown produce (though at prices that cause many customers to joke the name of the chain should be "Whole Paycheck"), the company explicitly labels products that don't contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), limits senior management compensation to no more than 14 times that of the average employee's salary and has, since 1998, appeared on FORTUNE magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" list.
Curiously, none of those facts made it into Eagar's story. Also bizarrely missing from Eagar's story was the name of the single most important person in Whole Foods history: Chief Executive Officer John Mackey.
Here, by leaving out any discussion of Mackey and his philosophy, background, unutterable loathing of organized labor, having a Star Trek poster hang in his office or recent investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Eager has committed a sin of omission of the first order.
Mackey, 53, opened his first store in Austin, Texas in 1978. According to a July 2004 profile in Fast Company, Mackey "flies commercial and likes to rent the cheapest car." He "typically wears shorts and hiking boots to work" and converted to a strict vegan diet in 2003 after a long and sometimes brutal correspondence with an animal-rights activist.
Mackey, who mandated that every Whole Foods store would contain a book listing every employee's ("team member's") salary that any "team member" could examine, is also fantastically anti-union.
"The union is like having herpes," Mackey wrote in his 19-page, 1992 pamphlet "Beyond Unions." "It doesn't kill you, but it's unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover."
That quote, multiplied throughout pro-labor sites across the Internet, exemplifies Mackey's views. His actions are just as harsh. In 2002, workers at the Madison, Wisconsin Whole Foods voted to affiliate themselves with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1444. Mackey refused to recognize the election, had two organizers fired and spent the next two years battling the union. In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board sided with Mackey, ending the matter.
Given Hawai'i's long relationship with organized labor, you'd think mentioning that bit of history might be relevant. But not to Eagar. Also curiously absent from the story was any hint that Mackey is involved in a very embarrassing and curious matter with the SEC.
On July 16 of this year, SEC investigators contacted Whole Foods corporate managers as part of investigation into a seven-year series of anonymous rants and messages Mackey apparently posted to various financial web sites. The messages, carrying the name "rahodeb," boosted Whole Foods and attacked Wild Oats, which Whole Foods wants to take over.
The day after the call from the SEC, Whole Foods posted a terse announcement on its own website saying it would "fully cooperate" with the investigation. The same day, Mackey himself issued an even shorter but far more interesting statement:
"I sincerely apologize to all Whole Foods Supermarket stakeholders for my error in judgment in anonymously participating on online financial message boards," Mackey said. "I am very sorry and I ask our stakeholders to please forgive me."
Harry, how could you neglect that? Come on! MTW
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