Wal-Mart, the huge Arkansas-based department store chain, has removed all rock-oriented publications from its stores. The decision followed a nationally televised broadcast by the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart in which the evangelist criticized rock magazines and mentioned Wal-Mart as the kind of place teen-agers could obtain them. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman denied any connection between the two events.
A June 12 memo instructing wholesalers to immediately remove such magazines from Wal-Mart racks listed 32 publications, including Rolling Stone, Creem, Circus, Hit Parader, Tiger Beat, Right On! and Super Teen, as well as "any other rock titles you may be placing in Wal-Mart stores." (An earlier memo, dated May 2, had resulted in the removal from Wal-Mart record racks of albums by a number of heavy metal artists and comedians, including Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Cheech and Chong, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Motley Cru e and Judas Priest.)
The Wal-Mart chain has 890 stores in 22 states, concentrated in the South and Southwest. The chain is owned by Sam Walton and his family; Forbes magazine has called Walton the richest man in America.
Although Wal-Mart made no public announcements criticizing or condemning rock magazines it was "delisting," some magazine publishers and distributors are linking the Wal-Mart decision to a fundamentalist-backed campaign to clean up the nation's magazine racks. They point to the much-publicized removal of adult magazines from a number of major chains subsequent to a letter from the Meese Commission on Pornography (which suggested that the chains might be named as distributors of pornography in its report); to the general tone of the recently released commission report; and to the televised sermon by Swaggart.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Stacy Duncan denied these links. "This was strictly a merchandising decision made within our company," Duncan said yesterday. "We don't see it as a censorship issue, we see it as a free enterprise issue." Insisting that the Wal-Mart decision was "not made recently" and that "we are not receiving pressure from anyone," she said: "It's just unfortunate that this coincided with the citation by Jimmy Swaggart and any government reports."
Swaggart, however, explicitly links the antirock and antiporn campaigns. From his Baton Rouge, La., headquarters, he said yesterday that "after nearly a quarter of a century of experience with pornography, we know what the results are. This is the same thing with rock music . . . a degenerating, debilitating influence on our youth."
*In recent years, he said, he has preached "an awful lot of messages relative to pornography and rock and roll." Swaggart at first did not recall mentioning Wal-Mart on the air. After checking, he said that in a New Haven sermon that was nationally broadcast on June 1, he had severely criticized one rock magazine in particular: "I said Hit Parader is a rock magazine that can be bought by children of all ages at places like Wal-Mart, K mart, the grocery store and practically any other retail store that sells magazines."
That television program was repeated again in certain southern markets on June 22, 10 days after Wal-Mart's internal memo. At that time, Jim Von Gremv, Wal-Mart director of corporate affairs, called Swaggart's ministry and consulted with Shirley Cook there. According to Swaggart, "afterwards, he thanked her and said, 'We cannot monitor every magazine that comes into our stores and we appreciate it being called to our attention.' They consequently removed 32 magazines from the racks, which I'm very pleased about."
Von Gremv confirms the conversation, but insists that the Wal-Mart decision was made well before the second Swaggart broadcast and that the call was just for clarification on Swaggart's statement. While not identifying which youth-oriented magazines Wal-Mart is continuing to carry, Von Gremv pointed out that the chain carries 65,000 items and that all are subject to periodic review. Wal-Mart, which did $6.4 billion in business last year, has never carried what the industry calls "men's sophisticate titles" such as Playboy and Penthouse.
"They have every right in the world to make that decision," said Ed Handy, circulation director at Charlton Publications Inc., publishers of Hit Parader and Song Hits. But he added that "there's no doubt in my mind it was connected to Swaggart's attack."
The combined Wal-Mart sales for Charlton's quarterly publications was under 10,000 copies, said Handy, and "we're not looking at this as a serious effect on our business, because they will be available in and around the Wal-Mart stores through other retailers. But it's a pity that the will of so few could affect so many.
"There's just no sense to their decision," he said. "They haven't discontinued magazines, and they were making money on these magazines."
John Edrie, publisher of DS magazines (Tiger Beat, Right On! and 22 related teen-oriented magazines), said the Wal-Mart decision "has the flavor of violating the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular." Edrie said his publications -- which he calls "innocent teen magazines," and which do $28 million in retail volume -- are available in 17,000 stores. He pointed out that 13,000 schools and libraries subscribe to Tiger Beat (some stories from the current issue: "Why George Michael's Not in Love," "Prince Has Come for His Throne," "A Day With Ralph Macchio" and "Summer's Sizzling Soap Stars"). Right On!, aimed at black teens, is in another 6,000 schools and libraries, Edrie said. The publisher said he has appealed the Wal-Mart decision, but has not yet received any response.
Bob Castardi, vice president of Curtis Circulation Co. in New Jersey, which distributes Creem, points out that the Wal-Mart "delisting" did not include teen magazines aimed at grooming, self-improvement and physical or intellectual growth such as Teen, Seventeen, Sixteen and Young Miss.
*According to Castardi, Curtis is in the process of aligning publishers, national distributors, wholesalers "and even printers and color separators to kick in some money" for a new coalition to be called Americans for Constitutional Freedoms to "let the American public know the other side of the story . . . This is something Gadhafi would do. Where does it stop? This is just the first step, in our opinion."
A spokesman for Rolling Stone magazine declined comment. But though Spin magazine, a Rolling Stone competitor, was not carried in the Wal-Mart stores, its publisher, Bob Guccione Jr., has become involved in the battle.
*Guccione's father is the publisher of Penthouse, so it was natural for him to draw comparisons between attacks on "men's sophisticates" and rock magazines. "Like eroticism, rock and roll is an easy target because the very thing that makes it exciting is its slight edge of outlawishness," he said. "If rock and roll wasn't about rebellion, no kid would ever be into it . . .
*"The great danger of censorship," Guccione said, is that "it's like a crack in the dam, and if the crack is not healed immediately, it will spread and the dam breaks. So what looks like a little early crack that bothers no one becomes the devastation down the road." On the other hand, he said, Wal-Mart's move may seem so absurd that "it may wind up undoing the fundamentalist campaign, because people will say 'This is truly stupid.' What's next? Popular Mechanics? It's book burning."
Swaggart, meanwhile, applauded Wal-Mart's action. "I was somewhat surprised when I heard it," he said, "because to my knowledge, they're the first ones to hit the rock and roll situation . . . I feel that the rock and roll scene is about like the pornography scene. They're very similar."
The rock scene "is dirty, corrupt, filthy, rotten," he said. "My first cousin Jerry Lee Lewis helped start rock and roll, and it's degenerated ever since. It's destroying a whole generation of young people.
"Nobody likes to tell people what they can or cannot sing but when it goes too far, if they won't police themselves, then someone's going to have to do it for them. I predict that this is just the beginning: There's going to be more and more corporate decisions to do these things because the public is becoming fearful of the results of what's taking place in the midst of rock and roll. It's fostering adultery, alcoholism, drug abuse, necrophilia, bestiality and you name it. It could hardly be much worse."
As for censorship, Swaggart said, "I'm concerned that rattlesnakes not become extinct, but not overly so. I don't lose any sleep over it."