Its ousting of bawdy-but-popular men's mags Maxim, Stuff and FHM from its magazine shelves is something more than deciding which mops or toasters to stock. On top of previous demands that music CDs be re-cut to eliminate offensive lyrics, Wal-Mart's actions in the pop culture marketplace have outsized significance because Wal-Mart is such an outsized player. If it persists in pursuing a particular vision of "good taste," Wal-Mart's exercise of marketplace power means its taste arbiters in Bentonville, Ark., will be arbiters of "freedom of expression," too.
Merchants prize their freedom to choose what they stock. But trading in products that deal in the arts and expression-however low-brow or crude those expressions may be-imposes a special duty when a merchant is as big in that category as Wal-Mart now is. Wal-Mart managers will never publish a critical review of film, music or publishing products, but access to Wal-Mart can be the difference between success and failure. When Wal-Mart managers bar these goods from their shelves, it places film producers, recording companies and magazine publishers under tremendous commercial pressure to buckle under. That kind of influence ought to require a careful restraint that's not evident in these Wal-Mart decisions.
No one mistakes Wal-Mart for an avant-garde boutique offering pop culture products at their anything-goes uncomfortable cutting edge. But it should exercise its power over the "creative goods" it carries with great care. It can serve its customers, and the spirit of free expression, best by offering an open environment to those products with popular followings. Use content warnings, if need be, or wrap them in plastic covers. But give the customer what he or she wants. Wal-Mart should start by putting Maxim and its "laddie" mates back on the rack.