'Holiday' conspiracy of media, retailers

By David Carr

The New York Times

News reports were full of finger-wagging over the death by trampling of a temporary worker, Jdimytai Damour, at a Wal-Mart store in Long Island on Friday. His death, the coverage suggested, was a symbol of a broken culture of consumerism in which people would do anything for a bargain.

The willingness of people to walk over another human being to get at the right price tag raises the question of how they got that way in the first place. But in the search for the usual suspects and parceling of blame, the news media should include themselves.

Just a few days ago, the same newspaper writers and television anchors who are now wearily shaking their heads at the collective bankruptcy of our mass consumer culture were cheering all of it on.

In the wake of death by shopper, Newsday, the daily paper on Long Island, wrung its hands in the opinion page blog: "Was this deadly rush to lower prices an illustration of the current economic malaise (people mobbing Wal-Mart because they fear they can't afford higher prices elsewhere) or just proof that even a recession can't suppress stuff-lust?" Then it added, rather unfortunately, "This awful death is another Joey Buttafuoco-like stain on the too-often sordid image of our island."

But on the run-up, Newsday offered a "Black Friday blueprint," with store openings listed so shoppers could plot strategy, including noting that at 5 a.m., the Green Acres Wal-Mart would open and customers could expect to buy a 42-inch LCD television for $598. Many continued to pursue that particular bargain even as Mr. Damour lay dying.

Media and retail outfits are economic peas in a pod. Part of the reason that the Thanksgiving newspaper and local morning television show are stuffed with soft features about shopping frenzies is that they are stuffed in return with ads from retailers.

Yes, Black Friday is a big day for retailers — stores did as much as 13 percent of their holiday business this last weekend — but it is also a huge day for newspapers and television.

In partnership with retail advertising clients, the news media have worked steadily and systematically to turn Black Friday into a broad cultural event. A decade ago, it was barely in the top 10 shopping days of the year. But once retailers hit on the formula of offering one or two very-low-priced items as loss leaders, media groups began to cover the outing as a kind of consumer sporting event.

"Media outlets have been stride for stride with the retailers," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm. "Something like this was bound to happen at some point. The man who died at Wal-Mart was, from what I understand, a temporary employee and had no idea what he was dealing with."

Given that early shoppers stomped him to death and later arrivals streamed past him as he was being treated, he could not be blamed for failing to understand the ungovernable mix of greed and thriftiness that was under way.

Some people think of Black Friday as an abundance of holiday generosity, but in a survey conducted by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs, 81 percent of the respondents said that they planned to shop for themselves, an army of self-seeking Santas.

News outlets that advised consumers to sharpen their elbows for the big day were selling something that has, in an online world, lost most of its value. If you want to define your self-worth as buying a $300 laptop, you can use the Web and a down cycle in the gadgets business to come out a winner.

"This is a tired American ritual that has had its day even before this happened," said Kalle Lasn, editor of AdBusters, a magazine and Web site that promotes the day after Thanksgiving as "Buy Nothing Day." "It accrues to the benefit of the media to somehow promote all of this craziness. There is something very sick about it."