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Michael Smerconish: Mangling the Wal-Mart story

THE ONLY thing that could've awakened me from a tryptophan-induced slumber last weekend was what happened after the doors opened at a Wal-Mart on Long Island, N.Y.

THE ONLY thing that could've awakened me from a tryptophan-induced slumber last weekend was what happened after the doors opened at a Wal-Mart on Long Island, N.Y.

And I don't mean the trampling of Jdimytai Damour. I refer to the subsequent coverage of Damour's tragic death. Everywhere I turned, I kept hearing it was a sign of the foundering economy.

Take, for example, the New York Times account. The lead: "In a sign of consumer desperation amid a bleak economy, the annual rite of retailing known as Black Friday turned chaotic and even deadly, as predawn shoppers scrambled for holiday bargains."

What? Consumer desperation amid a bleak economy?

This incident wasn't about that. It was about people willing to become savages in order to buy cheap TVs.

As the Times reported in another story detailing the incident: "By 3:30 a.m. the crowd outside Wal-Mart had swelled, drawn by sales promoting a Samsung 50-inch plasma high-definition television for $798, a Bissel Compact upright vacuum for $28, a Samsung 10.2 megapixel digital camera for $69 and DVDs like 'The Incredible Hunk' for $9."

Nor were they driven by holiday cheer. In fact, I doubt the shopping lists in their hands were the wish lists of loved ones. This was all about people who wanted TVs and gadgets - for themselves, no doubt - cheap.

No, Jdimytai Damour didn't die at the feet of consumers tightening their belts during what has now been dubbed an economic recession by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Personally, I think he was trampled by people who wanted - not needed - something new. Sure, the economy is bleak. But that's far in the background of this story.

Want proof of the character of the individuals we're talking about? How about the fact that, as reported by the Associated Press, some of the shoppers were upset to learn that Wal-Mart was closing the store to clean up and investigate the death of an employee?

Need more? The stampede reportedly engulfed co-workers seeking to help Damour as he lay at the bottom of the throng. Police officers attempting to administer CPR were also knocked down.

The New York Post quoted Damour's father, a 66-year-old school-bus driver named Ogera Charles, as saying he was most upset by the bargain hunters who stepped on his son en route to their Black Friday treasure.

"Why, why - looking for bargains? Money doesn't help you. We are human beings," he said.

Those words reminded me of a conversation I had a few months ago with John C. Bogle, founder and former CEO of the Vanguard Group. "Greed is not confined to the financial markets; it just finds its worst manifestation there," he told me in September, a month before his book "Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life" hit the shelves.

"Our society has changed. It's kind of a 'me' society, a 'more' society, an egocentric society, an arrogant society in many, many ways."

Unfortunately, Bogle's words were on full display on two fronts last weekend. The first, obviously, was the vestibule of that Long Island Wal-Mart, where semicrazed shoppers left a man's body lying next to a metal door frame that was "crumpled like an accordion," according to various reports.

The second? The camera lenses and snap reports that sought to link the country's deepening economic hole to a rabid Black Friday stampede.

Times economic writer Peter Goodman mentioned Black Friday in the same breath as the bread lines of the Great Depression and the gas lines of the 1970s before offering: "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."

The reality is that tough economic times have been the prevailing economic storyline for months now, and too many media outlets couldn't let Damour's death pass without gathering a little more string. *

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at