A couple of months ago, I ranted about the tendency of the Sussex University Students’ Union to censor ideas they don’t like by banning their sale at union-owned shops. A favourite target while I was a member of that organisation was the lad-mag FHM, which the Union deemed to be in violation of its equal-opportunities policy because of its portrayal of women. That’s left-wing student puritanism. But nobody does this better than good old conservative puritans.

In the “American Pie” column in the Press Gazette, Britain’s trade publication for journalists, Jeffrey Blyth reported last week:

The decision by Wal-Mart … to ban the the sale of Maxim, as well as other lads’ mags Stuff and FHM, has not overly fazed Dennis Publishing … The ban is not likely to have much effect on overall sales as Wal-Mart, big though it maybe, accouts for less than 3 per cent of news-stand sales of Maxim and the other magazines. It’s all part of a growing campaign, a log of it directed at records and CDs with racy lyrics, many of which have also been banned from Wal-Mart stores. Even magazines such as Sports Illustrated have been targeted. Last year’s annual swimsuit issues was removed from the racks because one single picture offended customers. …</p> Last week, the New York Times carried a story on the cultural power of the big-box retailers. The Times story notes that Eminem‘s latest album — ironically, a favourite target of British student unions as well — and Kurt Cobain‘s dairies. Unlike student union shops, the decisions made by big-box retailers have the capacity to shape the market for cultural products</a>:

The big chains now often account for more than 50 percent of the sales of a best-selling compact disk, more than 40 percent for a best-selling book and more than 60 percent for a best-selling DVD, so publishers and the entertainment industry cannot ignore what they want.


Several publishers said they had learned not to show books with explicit content or racy covers to the buyers for the mass merchandise chains, especially Wal-Mart. “Our reps who handle that channel might say, `Well, that cover won’t get into Wal-Mart,’ ” and then we have to decide whether we are going to change it, if that is going to be a big channel for this book,” Jane Friedman, chief executive of the HarperCollins division of the News Corporation, said. “They have not dictated to us, but we are very smart about servicing that channel the way they would like to be serviced.” </blockquote>

Unfortunatly, the issue isn’t as simple as some commentators, like the Baltimore Sun’s Susan Reimer, make it. Wal-Mart is not an illegitimate self-appointed guardian of the First Amendment. Nor, is it, as Diana West of the * Washington Post* would have it, a non-issue. “Just because Wal-Mart stopped selling Maxim et al. doesn’t mean the mags have disappeared down a hole,” she wrote. An editorial in the York Daily Record was the most honest. It was a business decision, and the attempt to spin it as moralistic is hypocritical:

… the retail giant seems to have just bowed to pressure from its customers. Wal-Mart has read its own marketing studies and analyzed its demographics, figuring that God-fearing people don’t like what they see at the checkout line. There’s nothing wrong with bowing to customers. Business is all about knowing the customer.

Just don’t call it morally righteous when guns and ammunition, potentially more dangerous to the population, are lined up over in the sporting goods section.

The question is, where do legitimate retail decisions end and an abuse of the undeniable cultural power of large-volume retailers begin?