‘Alternative’ Media Quietly Sells Out to Whole Foods Market

In July 2002, employees at the Whole Foods Market in Madison, Wisconsin, made history when they voted to become the first unionized store at the natural foods mega-chain. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)-supported organizing drive was motivated by lower-than-industry wages, absence of a legally-binding grievance procedure, and other unfair labor practices. The pro-union vote also sparked a determined and eventually successful year-long campaign by the chain’s notoriously anti-union CEO John Mackey to defeat the only union shop among its more than 150 stores.

While the events in Madison were unfolding, drawing the attention of the New York Times and other press, Whole Foods in a story not previously reported was also not above engaging in some behind-the-scenes bullying, threatening withdrawal of its advertising dollars from any publication that gave voice to the union cause.

In May 2003, the progressive Chicago magazine, Conscious Choice, had run a small ad paid for by the UFCW on behalf of the Madison Organizing Committee. The simple ad explained why Whole Foods employees in Madison had voted to join the UFCW, asked for public support, and encouraged other employees to visit their web site.

The pro-union ad also ran in a handful of other alternative magazines around the country (only Vegetarian Times refused to run it.) Consequently, Whole Foods’ regional management in Chicago contacted Conscious Choice, requesting a meeting with the magazine’s publisher to register their unhappiness with the decision to run the ad. The apparent intent was to let it be known that future advertising revenue might be at stake, should any more pro-union faux pax’s appear in print.

Notably, Conscious Choice itself had recently been purchased by Dragonfly Media, a new national media chain owned by Detroit Metro founder Ron Williams, who is currently acquiring existing community-based New Age-type magazines in several cities. Apparently, the decision to run the union ad had been made by the magazine’s original Chicago publisher, who was then still running the magazine’s day-to-day operations.

According to reliable sources inside the company at the time, Dragonfly Media’s response to the Whole Foods complaint was to give the company the gift of a year’s worth of free quarter-page advertising in each monthly issue.

Ironically, a year later while Conscious Choice was featuring an anti-Wal-Mart cover story in its May 2004 issue, Williams was pre-empting the editorial page in his five magazines to engage in apparent soul-searching over whether to run advertising for an “organic” tobacco product produced by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. With some fanfare, Williams used the editorial page to invite the magazine’s readers to weigh in on the debate over whether a company committed to promoting socially responsible business practices should sell advertising space to cigarette manufacturers.

Of course, Williams was right that even so-called organic cigarettes will likely eventually ruin your health and maybe kill you. What does this have to do with social responsibility? he asked. Thus, the “difficult” interim decision not to accept advertising from Santa Fe Natural Tobacco. Williams also noted that some in his company didn’t agree with his decision, which implied a tacit endorsement of the advertisers they choose to feature.

Accordingly, as Dragonfly Media took the issue to its readers, many sounded off both pro and con on whether this “values-based” media company should accept such advertising money. The letters ran in the next issue of Dragonfly Media publications in Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, B.C., along with a second accompanying editorial by Williams explaining his final decision to refuse the Santa Fe advertising.

Like many companies that brand themselves as “socially responsible,” Dragonfly Media, which also describes itself as “the next generation of the alternative press,” is nothing if not adept at self-promotion. By going public with his decision, inviting readers to share their opinion, Williams thus transformed a business decision into a two-month exercise in self-congratulatory editorializing (i.e., marketing) of Dragonfly as a uniquely distinguished media pioneer, determined to demonstrate that business success and a commitment to “values, transparency, and integrity” can indeed coexist in the media business.

Unsurprisingly, the ethical implications of the earlier behind-the-scenes decision to mollify Whole Foods with a year’s worth of free advertising because of previous management’s decision to run one pro-union ad didn’t come up in William’s editorials. Notably, Dragonfly Media was also the publisher last fall of an article by well-known environmentalist Paul Hawken summarizing the Natural Capital Institute’s critical report on the socially responsible investment (SRI) industry (they’ve also run responses to Hawken from industry defenders.) The company deserves credit for running Hawken’s highly critical article when other progressive publishers would not. But there is a thread of irony (hypocrisy?) running through the company’s actions. While Williams was “agonizing” over whether to run cigarette advertising, Dragonfly Media was once again showing where its preferred loyalties lay, rebuking members of the original Whole Foods Workers Organizing Committee who last fall had expressed interest in purchasing new advertising in Conscious Choice.

In the wake of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision last summer on grievances filed by UFCW Local 1444 in Madison, Debbie Rasmussen and Brendan O’Sullivan, who continue to maintain the Whole Workers Unite web site, contacted Conscious Choice about purchasing new ad space for an update on the issues of workplace justice at Whole Foods. According to Rasmussen, their initial request, which was sent from the wholeworkersunite.org email account, was ignored. After two more requests from the same email address were also ignored, O’Sullivan decided to send a general request for info about ad rates from his personal email address, without identifying what the ad was for.

“It was only then that Conscious Choice’s marketing director Roni Ambrister responded, and then it was an immediate response,” says Rasmussen. “But after we described the ad we had in mind, it took more than a week for her to get back to us. Conveniently enough, she contacted us right after the ad deadline for that month had closed.

“As someone who works in publishing,” adds Rasmussen, now an associate publisher of Bitch, a popular feminist magazine published in the San Francisco Bay Area, “I’m familiar enough with ad direction to know that you don’t ignore potential advertisers, or wait to get back to them until after your deadline has closed.”

After another delay, the Conscious Choice rep finally declared that Dragonfly Media would not run any advertising critical of Whole Foods. In turning down their request, Ambrister apparently told O’Sullivan and Rasmussen that Conscious Choice might reconsider its refusal if they could provide “proof” of their complaints against Whole Foods. She also somewhat disingenuously suggested that perhaps Conscious Choice could run an article on Whole Foods and the union issue, which she wanted them to believe might be even more advantageous than advertising.

When Rasmussen and O’Sullivan responded by emailing a batch of articles and references detailing the history of grievances against the company, the response from Ambrister and Dragonfly Media was-no response. Nor, for that matter, did they follow-up on Hawken’s earlier expressed request to “out” Whole Foods as a socially responsible business, as a follow-up to his October 2004 Dragonfly Media article on the SRI industry.

Of course, Dragonfly Media or any media company is free to run whatever advertising it chooses. But it’s also evident that in today’s media world, more than justice, money talks. Or, more precisely, money dictates who does not talk.

Apparently, the commercial alternative press, “cause-directed” marketing notwithstanding, is not any more capable of doing what it criticizes the mainstream media for not doing—separating its editorial message from unspoken limits imposed by wealthy advertisers.

“Why tout Whole Foods and Wild Oats and then talk of boycotting Philip Morris when in fact Whole Foods and Wild Oats continue to buy from Phillip Morris?” asked Hawken in an earlier 2003 exchange published in Green Money Journal on SRI that touched on the ethics of doing business with another cigarette company. “Why not boycott Whole Foods or Wild Oats until they start getting their values in alignment with corporate social responsibility? Why not discuss the fact that companies that are talked about as investments in Natural and Organic Foods are often predatory with very spotty environmental and social track records, and in the cases shown, with some questionable products as well? Just because they sell ‘natural’ products, are we supposed to look the other way?….Is it even discussable?”

Apparently, not.

Mark Harris is a freelance journalist who has written for Utne, Z, Conscious Choice and other magazines. He is a member of the National Writers Union and a contributing editor to Tradewinds, the publication of IAM Local 1781 in Burlingame, California. You can write to him at TheEditorPage@aol.com.

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