At Wal-Mart, a curiously selective reading list

As soon as I heard that Wal-Mart had banned the sale of Maxim, FHM and Stuff magazines, I rushed to my nearest Wal-Mart store.

I didn’t go so I could buy a copy before they were actually pulled from the shelves. I’m not the least bit interested in these so-called “lad” magazines, with their sophomoric blend of naughty-cum-bawdy humor, tiny stories for even tinier brains and come-hither photos of semi-clad semi-starlets. There’s an enormous difference, though, between disliking a magazine and prohibiting its sale.

I don’t question Wal-Mart’s legal right to stop selling the magazines. But Wal-Mart has almost 3,000 stores, generating $244 billion in annual sales, an amount equal to the gross national product of Saudi Arabia, the world’s 30th largest economy. Although the company that owns Maxim and Stuff says Wal-Mart accounts for less than 3% of its sales, the giant chain accounts for about 15% of single-copy magazine sales overall.

“They’re the biggest newsstand vehicle in the country for magazines,” says Ronni Faust, vice president of the Magazine Publishers of America, an industry trade group. Thus, Wal-Mart can be not only the country’s biggest retailer but its biggest censor as well.


“In this free society,” Faust says, “consumers should have the freedom to decide for themselves what they want to purchase. It is unfortunate that a highly vocal minority is trying to deprive millions of Americans -- from all walks of life and in all parts of the country -- of their right to purchase their favorite magazines.”

Indeed, Wal-Mart wields enormous power in the consumer marketplace, and if company executives think these magazines shouldn’t be sold, I wanted to see firsthand what they are willing to sell.

Guns, games and DVDs

The first magazines I saw on my Wal-Mart newsstand included Gun Buyer’s Guide, Guns & Weapons for Law Enforcement and Shotgun News. (Lest the gun lobby rise up in defense of shotguns as merely game-hunting weapons, I should point out that the latter features ads for handguns, AK-47s and “a full selection of assault rifles” -- all essential, no doubt, when deer season opens.)


I also found shelves full of violent DVDs (“Red Dragon,” “Predator,” “8 mm,” “Reservoir Dogs”) -- right next to all the kid-friendly Disney DVDs. And there were even more violent video games -- “Vietnam,” “Deadly Dozen,” “Grand Theft Auto III” (in a box featuring the family-values invitation to “rob, steal and kill just to stay out of serious trouble”).

Oh well, at least Wal-Mart wasn’t selling guns. At least not in its 118 stores in California. Not right now anyway.

Wal-Mart agreed to a temporary suspension of firearms sales in this state last month after investigators found 492 violations of state laws, including the sales of guns to felons.

But Wal-Mart plans to resume gun sales here “as soon as we convince ourselves that our employee training program is up to snuff,” says Tom Williams, a Wal-Mart spokesman.


In the meantime, Wal-Mart stores in other states continue to sell guns. The stores stopped selling handguns in 1993, but they still sell rifles and shotguns.


The same reason the company banned the sale of Maxim, FHM and Stuff, Williams said -- “customer response.”

“We were getting consistent comments from customers around the country that they were uncomfortable with our carrying those magazines in the stores,” he said.


But many Wal-Mart customers want to buy guns -- and, according to Williams, few object to the sale of guns.


About 30,000 people die in the United States every year from firearms injuries. I wonder how many die from looking at magazine pictures of half-naked women.

To be fair, Wal-Mart is not entirely indifferent to violence. When Sheryl Crow released a CD in 1996 with a song she wrote that contained the lyric “Watch out sister, watch out brother, watch our children kill each other with a gun they bought at Wal-Mart discount stores,” Wal-Mart decided not to carry it.


The lyric, Wal-Mart said, was “unfair comment” because the company follows “all state and federal laws in each state verbatim,” including those governing age restrictions and background checks.

Of course. That’s why California investigators found those 492 violations.

The unique strength of a democracy is that it is -- in theory at least -- a free marketplace of ideas. But in the United States, some ideas are a little more free than others, and Wal-Mart both reflects and profits (hugely) from that reality. In general, Wal-Mart’s behavior is -- sadly -- altogether in keeping with the bizarre double standard that this country and its media have long applied to sex and violence.

Historic precedents


As the father of a 13-year-old boy, I’m frequently appalled by the violent movies that the parents of some of our son’s friends let them see. No amount of bloodshed and mayhem seems too much. But I’ve had several parents tell me they won’t let their kids see a movie that’s sexually suggestive -- even if the suggestion is primarily in the language rather than the act.

To some degree, this irrational dichotomy is rooted in our country’s history. We came into nationhood by violent revolution. We killed each other by the tens of thousands in the Civil War. We glorified -- or at least romanticized -- thugs and killers from Jesse James to John Dillinger to John Gotti.

Television is filled with so much violence, says Donald Heinz in “The Last Passage: Recovering a Death of Our Own,” that children now see more than 20,000 violent deaths on television by the time they’re 18. They see 200,000 violent acts in all during that same time period, according to several other studies.

Granted, much of this violence is fictional violence -- fantasy violence -- and I don’t mean to suggest that the only permissible fantasies are sexual in nature. But violence on television and in the movies can certainly seem very real, especially to children. When our son was much younger, we found that he became aggressive and inclined to poke and hit after watching “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” on television.


So we told him he couldn’t watch it anymore. The poking and hitting stopped almost immediately.

The other half of the violence/good, sex/bad equation in the United States is that we are a country whose early settlers included Puritans, the linear descendants of those not-so-jolly Brits who executed King Charles I and the archbishop of Canterbury in their zeal to purify the Church of England.

There is a growing sexual openness in many quarters of American society today, of course -- much of it promulgated in the media -- and what we now have is a culture that is simultaneously puritanical and panting, both sexually repressed and sexually obsessed.

Nevertheless, the power -- both corporate and governmental -- remains, alas, with the Puritans. In 40 years as a newspaper reporter -- to take but one small, personal example -- I can never recall an editor telling me I had to cut a reference to violence out of a story. But I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the times I’ve been told (or knew from past experience) that certain sexually tinged words, phrases, images, even whole stories could not be published for fear of offending readers.


Just as The Times is not alone in its journalistic erotophobia, so Wal-Mart is not the first retailer to decide that man’s natural instincts and appetites should not be merchandised within its four capacious walls. Back in 1986, the parent company of the 7-Eleven convenience stores banned Playboy, Penthouse and Forum magazines.

I stopped shopping at 7-Eleven for the next 10 years, in protest.

No such personal protest will be necessary with Wal-Mart. I never shop there anyway.

I suppose I might feel differently if I smoked cigarettes, though. When I was at Wal-Mart checking out its gun magazines and violent DVDs and video games, I couldn’t help noticing that the store had 20 shelves full of discount-priced cigarettes.


But, hey, cigarettes only kill about 400,000 Americans a year.

I guess Wal-Mart figures a bare breast is worse than a cancerous lung.

David Shaw can be reached at