Dec 1 2005

Sidebar: Superstore Censorship

[Note: this piece is a sidebar to Media Lick the Hand That Feeds Them]

In media products no less than other retail items, Wal-Mart’s market share is considerable. By one estimate (Business Week, 10/6/03), its stores account for 15 to 20 percent of all CD, DVD and video sales, as well as 15 percent of all single-copy magazine sales. Those figures could be higher; one analyst put Wal-Mart’s share of total music sales in the U.S. at 35 percent (New York Times, 12/29/03).

But there’s a price to be paid for getting shelf space at Wal-Mart, as the chain often demands that artists conform to its conservative tastes in order to gain distribution. Wal-Mart has regularly refused to carry certain items it deemed inappropriate—most notably America (The Book), a satirical look at politics from Jon Stewart and Comedy Central’s Daily Show. (Wal-Mart said it objected to simulated photos of the Supreme Court justices naked, a feature every bit as titillating as it sounds.)

The mega-chain also rejects music carrying “parental guidance” labels, a policy that results in many artists creating edited versions of albums just for the chain. By some accounts, Wal-Mart’s decisions can seem arbitrary, as one employee admitted (Business Week, 10/6/03): “There’s a line between provocative and pornographic. I don’t know exactly where it is.” But Wal-Mart’s reasons for blocking an item can be all too specific, as when it refused to carry a Sheryl Crow CD that contained a lyric about children buying guns at Wal-Mart.

Censorship seems to be a Wal-Mart instinct. When the Pensacola News Journal (6/19/05) had the temerity to publish a column critical of the chain, Wal-Mart pulled the paper from its area stores, and a regional manager advised an editor at the paper to fire the offending columnist (Pensacola News Journal, 7/24/05). Only after the paper’s banning was publicized did Wal-Mart rescind the decision (AP, 7/26/05).

When you’re as big as Wal-Mart, that kind of attitude has the potential to intimidate even much bigger outlets. In 2002, New York Post columnist Neal Travis (1/11/02) cited “widespread” rumors that Time magazine’s original choice for its 2001 person-of-the-year cover was Osama bin Laden—until Wal-Mart intervened. A Wal-Mart spokesperson did not deny the pressure, saying, “If Osama bin Laden had been on the cover of that magazine, we would not have liked it and would have evaluated how our customers feel before selling it.”

Some media companies seem happy to find a way to play ball with Wal-Mart. People magazine—like Time, a product of Time Warner—developed a special issue sold only in Wal-Mart stores. And during the 2004 election, Fox News Channel created a partnership with Wal-Mart to provide exclusive election coverage on Wal-Mart’s in-store TV network.