CBS Tastelessly Mixes Wal-Mart Tragedy with Shopping Story

On Friday, Nov. 28's CBS Evening News, reporter Michelle Miller used the tragic death of a Wal-Mart security guard as the hook to open her story on consumers who are spending less this holiday season. 

During her two and a half minute report, Miller included both footage of the dying man laid out in front of the Wal-Mart door and a video clip of an elderly woman amazed that everything at a Dollar Tree store costs only a dollar.

And she highlighted the “gently used Gucci bags” selling for $800 at a consignment store.

Miller's packaging of her story reeked of tasteless opportunism.  Her theme was how shoppers are changing their buying habits this year, but she opened and closed her piece by discussing the death of the 34-year-old Wal-Mart employee trampled to death by eager shoppers on Black Friday. 

Mixing a family's tragedy with shoppers giddy about bargains is crass.  The producers at CBS did this man and his family a disservice.  It would have been much more respectful – and tasteful – if Glor reported the man's death separately. Then Miller could have done a clean piece on Black Friday shopping in the dour economy.

At first blush it almost appeared that CBS was reporting the ridiculous desperation of bargain hunters that literally cost a man his life.  Fill-in anchor Jeff Glor set up that expectation with his lead into Miller's story.  Miller herself used her opening stand-up to describe the Christmas shopping chaos.

JEFF GLOR: Here at home, millions hit the malls and stores today looking for Christmas gifts the day after Thanksgiving. In this economy, shoppers are desperate for a bargain and that desperation led to tragedy for a store worker in Long Island, New York, today. Michelle Miller is there tonight. Michelle?

MICHELLE MILLER: Jeff, it happened at this Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island. As shoppers stood in line this morning waiting for those Black Friday specials, the doors opened at 5:00 A.M. Chaos followed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They started pushing in, pushing in the doors. They wanted what they came for.

MILLER: A phone camera captured paramedics attempting to save the 34-year-old Wal-Mart employee. Moments before he was knocked down and trampled by an unruly crowd of early morning shoppers. He died a short time later.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The security guard that was doing his job ended up losing his life over electronics.

MILLER: In Missouri, two shoppers were hit by a car in a packed Wal-Mart parking lot. They suffered scrapes and bruises.

Miller put the brakes on any hope that her story might examine the deeper meaning when people are so desperate to save a buck that they literally kill another human being.  But no.  Her very next sentence revealed the real topic of the story: consumerism. From Wal-Mart's sales to Dollar Tree's bargains, Miller left the body of the trampled Wal-Mart employee just like the shoppers who stepped over him to get to the $4 pajama sets.

MILLER: Wal-Mart has enjoyed better news in recent weeks as shoppers flock to their stores. It was the only big-box retailer to post a third-quarter increase in sales.

MARSHAL COHEN, Retail Analyst, NPD Group: We've got the consumer that's now saying, "I'm going to operate on a new set of rules. I'm going to shop in new places, I'm gonna' look to be more thrifty, I'm gonna' look to be more economical."

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MILLER: This is a different holiday season for those desperate for deals. Seven in ten Americans say they're going to change the way they shop by looking specifically for sale items, using store coupons, even using layaway plans.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Only deals. Only deals and if I find a better deal I return.

MILLER: Deep discounters are also seeing an uptick. Sales at Dollar Tree stores are up 20 percent over the same period last year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Everything's a dollar! (Laughs) That's great!

MILLER: And bargain hunters lined up starting at 7:00 last night at Woodbury Commons Premium Outlets just outside New York City.

MICHELE ROTHSTEIN, VP, Chelsea Property Group:  Shoppers are looking for value. They're looking for brands. And they're looking for permission to shop.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN:  Where I come from in Brooklyn these sneakers right here would go for $60 for my daughter.  And they're $30, so I'm good. I'm good.

MILLER: Even at this tony New York consignment store, gently used Gucci bags that retail for $3,000 are now a bargain at $800.

SALES WOMAN: We're ahead by 20 percent for the year.

After touting the consignment store's success, the video cut back to Miller in the Wal-Mart parking lot. She decided to wrap up her shopping story by revisiting the murder scene.

MILLER: People are passionate about finding the best prices, but clearly something got out of hand here. Right now police are looking at surveillance tapes to see if charges should be filed.

Something “got out of hand?!”  One wonders if the family of the man who was killed by “passionate” shoppers on Friday would describe his death that way. 

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.