Reporter Blames U.S. Business for Wal-Mart Trampling, a "Shopping Guernica"

The Times economics reporter on the trampling death at an early-morning Wal-Mart sale: "It was a tragedy, yet it did not feel like an accident. All those people were there, lined up in the cold and darkness, because of sophisticated marketing forces that have produced this day now called Black Friday."

Times economics reporter Peter Goodman certainly can't be accused of dry writing. Goodman constantly draws attention to his economics stories (often well-positioned by editors) with sharp criticism of capitalism, and he reached a new level of leftist abstraction in his Sunday Week in Review piece on the early-morning shopping stampede at a Long Island Wal-Mart that resulted in the trampling death of an employee, "A Shopping Guernica Captures the Moment."

From the high-brow yet histrionic headline (here's some background on the German bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica) to the inflated prose, it's good, chewy bias in Goodman's favored Marxist professor mode (as prominentlydisplayed in his December 2007 story headlined "The Free Market: A False Idol After All?").

Goodman is eager to paint the Wal-Mart rampagers as some species of victim - if not of capitalism directly, then the marketingthat is selling capitalismto the people in this time of crisis.

From the Great Depression, we remember the bread lines. From the oil shocks of the 1970s, we recall lines of cars snaking from gas stations. And from our current moment, we may come to remember scenes like the one at a Long Island Wal-Mart in the dawn after Thanksgiving, when 2,000 frantic shoppers trampled to death an employee who stood between them and the bargains within.

It was a tragedy, yet it did not feel like an accident. All those people were there, lined up in the cold and darkness, because of sophisticated marketing forces that have produced this day now called Black Friday. They were engaging in early-morning shopping as contact sport. American business has long excelled at creating a sense of shortage amid abundance, an anxiety that one must act now or miss out.

This year, that anxiety comes with special intensity for everyone involved - for shoppers, fully cognizant of the immense strains on the economy, which has made bargains more crucial than ever; for the stores, now grappling with what could be among the weakest holiday seasons on record; and for policy makers around the planet, grappling with how to substitute for the suddenly beleaguered American consumer, whose proclivities for new gadgets and clothing has long been the engine of economic growth from Guangzhou to Guatemala City.

For decades, Americans have been effectively programmed to shop. China, Japan and other foreign powers have provided the wherewithal to purchase their goods by buying staggering quantities of American debt. Financial institutions have scattered credit card offers as if they were takeout menus and turned our houses into A.T.M.'s. Hollywood and Madison Avenue have excelled at persuading us that the holiday season is a time to spend lavishly or risk being found insufficiently appreciative of our loved ones.

After some hyperbole about working hours "being slashed" and health benefits being "downgraded or eliminated altogether," Goodman concluded:

In a sense, the American economy has become a kind of piñata - lots of treats in there, but no guarantee that you will get any, making people prone to frenzy and sending some home bruised.

It seemed fitting then, in a tragic way, that the holiday season began with violence fueled by desperation; with a mob making a frantic reach for things they wanted badly, knowing they might go home empty-handed.

Interestingly, Goodman's Times colleague, media columnist David Carr, pointed the finger at the media in his Monday column, "Media and Retailers Both Built Black Friday."

This weekend, news reports were full of finger-wagging over the death by trampling of a temporary worker, Jdimypai 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.

Carr citeda storyfrom The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "advised readers to leave the children at home, at least the ones not big enough to carry the loot, because they will just slow you down."

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 post-Thanksgiving outing as a kind of consumer sporting event.