The Times' Wal-Mart beat reporter Michael Barbaro  teams up with charitable giving reporter Stephanie Strom for a story  on the front page of Friday's business section, "ConservativesHelp Wal-Mart, and Vice Versa."
"As Wal-Mart Stores struggles to rebut criticism from unions and Democratic leaders, the company has discovered a reliable ally: prominent conservative research groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute.
"Top policy analysts at these groups have written newspaper opinion pieces around the country supporting Wal-Mart, defended the company in interviews with reporters and testified on its behalf before government committees in Washington.
"But the groups - and their employees - have consistently failed to disclose a tie to the giant discount retailer: financing from the Walton Family Foundation, which is run by the Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's three children, who have a controlling stake in the company.
"The groups said the donations from the foundation have no influence over their research, which is deliberately kept separate from their fund-raising activities. What's more, the pro-business philosophies of these groups often dovetail with the interests of Wal-Mart.
"But the financing, which totaled more than $2.5 million over the last six years, according to data compiled by GuideStar, a research organization, raises questions about what the research groups should disclose to newspaper editors, reporters or government officials. The Walton Family Foundation must disclose its annual donations in forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service, but research groups are under no such obligation.
"Companies and such groups have long courted one another - one seeking influence, the other donations - and liberal policy groups receive significant financing from unions and left-leaning organizations without disclosing their financing.
"But the Walton donations could prove risky for Wal-Mart, given its escalating public relations campaign. The company's quiet outreach to bloggers, beginning last year, touched off a debate about what online writers should disclose to readers, and its financing to policy groups could do the same."
Or so the Times wishes. John J. Miller writes  at NationalReview Online: "The NYT desperately would like to think that when conservatives defend Wal-Mart from the enemies of capitalism, it's because Wal-Mart has bought them off. You know, because in ordinary circumstances free marketeers would support the store's demonization by the labor-backed groups that want to unionize its workers or regulate it out of existence....The question-raisers who are quoted are either unionists, leftists, or both. What we have here is the very definition of a phony controversy."
Check for yourself the underwhelmingfigures  to conservative organizations like Heritage ($5,000 in 2004) as opposed to nonpolitical groups like the United Way of San Diego County ($120,000 in 2004).
A graphic headlined "The Money Behind the Voices" spells out the "Walton Family Foundation Total Contributions, 1999-2004."
Over five years, according to the Times, the Manhattan Institute received $396,000, the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy $175,000, and The American Enterprise Institute $107,900. Those figures run alongside favorable quotes about Wal-Mart from MI's John McWhorter, PRI's Sally Pipes, and American Enterprise magazine's Karl Zinsmeister. That would lead a casual reader to believe the Times is suggesting a quid pro quo, though the article itself admits that "the pro-business philosophies of these groups often dovetail with the interests of Wal-Mart."
To put those figures in perspective, the foundation gave out $117 million in grants in 2004 alone - making the grants to those conservative groups over a five-year period seem rather puny.