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Wal-Mart ‘All black people leave’ arrest a media wake-up call

In the last week, both Toyota and Wal-Mart bore the the brunt of alleged consumer skulduggery. Critics say the media is more gullible than most Americans when it comes to reporting stories like the racist PA announcement or the runaway Prius.

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Washington Township, N.J. Police chief Rafael Muniz (l.) answers questions Saturday about the arrest of the person believed responsible for a racist PA announcement at a Wal-Mart there.

Mel Evans/AP

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The arrest of a 16-year-old Washington Township, N.J., boy for saying “All black people, leave the store now” over a Wal-Mart public-address system is, in retrospect, in the same family of ill-considered pranks that might’ve been used by a member of the Brat Pack in a 1980s John Hughes film.

But days after a government statement that at least one report of a runway Toyota Prius was also, if not a prank, at least solely driver error, the Wal-Mart arrest shows that, in some cases of apparent corporate negligence or even racism, the media could use a little more skepticism.

“Journalism schools are supposed to teach that skepticism is paramount,” writes Michael Fumento, director of the nonprofit Independent Journalism Project, about a questionable claim of a stuck Toyota gas pedal in California. “Yet comments on Web sites across the country reveal that practically everyone thought the Prius incident was a hoax – though they couldn't prove it – except for the media.”

Police booked the Wal-Mart prankster, who was not named, on charges of harassment and bias intimidation, which could land him a year in juvenile detention. Police did not give the race of the boy.

Satuday's arrest shows how consumer pranksters can unfairly kick a company even when it’s down, creating a public relations disaster and costing a corporation dearly even when it’s done nothing at all wrong.

Many media outlets quickly assumed the worst in the Wal-Mart incident. Gothamist ran the headline, “More racism at Walmart, this time over PA system.”

Mr. Fumento writes that the lack of skepticism about another recent claim of a runaway Toyota, this one in California, is “stunning.” In the California incident, a man traveled for 20 minutes at high speed, unable, he claimed, to brake or shut his Prius down, before a police officer in a cruiser helped him come to a stop. The investigation into that case is still ongoing.

Claiming that the man's story doesn't make sense, Fumento writes, “It's a Toyota media feeding frenzy and the media aren't about to let little things like incredible stories and readily-refutable claims get in the way."

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That’s not to say corporations don’t invite media criticism – and even hoaxes. So far, accelerator problems have been tied to 52 deaths in the US, and Toyota’s sales numbers are down by over 10 percent over the last month after its largest-ever recall.

In Wal-Mart’s case, the Arkansas-based company paid a $17.5 million settlement last year brought by black truck drivers who claimed the company discriminated against them. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also sued Wal-Mart in 2009 over racial insults coming from fellow employees.

Since then, Wal-Mart’s approval numbers among consumers has been rising, especially as it makes a push into urban areas.

The “All black people leave now” prank is at least the second hoax in the last few months directed at Wal-Mart.

Late last year, Wal-Mart faced a social media hoax after news outlets began reporting a faux press release announcing that Wal-Mart had begun selling caskets online, sparking “a few clever folks [to start] writing fictitious (yet highly entertaining} comments about the products on Walmart.com,” writes Ad Age’s Craig Daitch. “The hilarity of the reviews began to border on the absurd.”

In that case, Wal-Mart took down the faux reviews. After Saturday’s arrest, the company announced it would work to limit shoppers’ access to in-store PA systems.

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