Wal-Mart de Mexico; or, why we need newspapers

The New York Times has published a long examination of flagrant bribery by Wal Mart in Mexico that is so detailed in its reporting and comprehensive in its scope that I am not even going to quote any of its findings because it needs to be read in full.  This is Part One: it will open in a separate window, so I’ll wait here until you’ve had a chance to read it.

Finished?  Astonishing, wasn’t it, how methodically the Times’ David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab pieced together the falsified paper trail of bribe-bought permits and bogus land surveys dating back nearly thirty years?  Given my Middle East bias, one thing I thought as I read it was: just imagine if the Times’ David Kirkpatrick attempted something like this in Egypt, where Mubarak put the entire country up for sale, everyone knows it, but no one has been able to document it at this level of detail.

But the other thing I thought, more generally, was: this is why we need newspapers.  No Google News aggregator, Huffington Post headline writer, or dedicated blogger can come close to matching the resources and commitment that the Times has brought to bear on this investigation.  It is worth recounting what went into it, just to savor what journalism looks like:

[As] The New York Times revealed in April, Wal-Mart’s leaders shut down the [corruption] investigation in 2006. They did so even though their investigators had found a wealth of evidence supporting the lawyer’s allegations. The decision meant authorities were not notified. It also meant basic questions about the nature, extent and impact of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s conduct were never asked, much less answered.

The Times has now picked up where Wal-Mart’s internal investigation was cut off, traveling to dozens of towns and cities in Mexico, gathering tens of thousands of documents related to Wal-Mart de Mexico permits, and interviewing scores of government officials and Wal-Mart employees, including 15 hours of interviews with the former lawyer, Sergio Cicero Zapata.

The Times’s examination reveals that Wal-Mart de Mexico was not the reluctant victim of a corrupt culture that insisted on bribes as the cost of doing business. Nor did it pay bribes merely to speed up routine approvals. Rather, Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance — public votes, open debates, transparent procedures. It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.

Through confidential Wal-Mart documents, The Times identified 19 store sites across Mexico that were the target of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s bribes. The Times then matched information about specific bribes against permit records for each site. Clear patterns emerged. Over and over, for example, the dates of bribe payments coincided with dates when critical permits were issued. Again and again, the strictly forbidden became miraculously attainable.

Someone needs to figure out the new business model that will continue to underwrite reporting like this.  Nothing about this will redound to the financial benefit of the Times: those months of work cost more than any amount of advertising that can be sold against the printed article, to say nothing of online ads — and there is always the risk that Wal-Mart (and others) may pull advertising in retaliation.  But it is good journalism and it will help make Mexico a better place.

It should also make the US better, given the outsize role Wal-Mart plays in this country in building, trade and employment.  But it doesn’t stop there: a year ago, amid great controversy, India for the first time approved the entrance of multibrand retail outlets like Wal-Mart to their huge domestic market — one can only imagine the spending sprees that a few key Indian officials went on following the passage of that legislation.

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Click here to read all my posts on India, Egypt, or the New York Times.

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2 Responses to “Wal-Mart de Mexico; or, why we need newspapers”

  1. chikashi says:

    “one can only imagine the spending sprees that a few key Indian officials went on following the passage of that legislation”

    Why do you think the amendment was proposed and then pursued in the first place? 😉

  2. […] I said of the New York Times in-depth investigation of bribery by Walmart in Mexico that it was proof of why we need newspapers: the time and resources involved in breaking that story were beyond the capabilities of most online […]

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