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Hiding the Headlines

By blocking explicit lyrics, the nation’s top retailer, Wal-Mart, sought to enhance their “family friendly” image. In keeping with this reputation, the store’s latest maneuver is to cover headlines on specific periodicals.

Starting in July, Wal-Mart stores nationwide will implement a new technique to shadow racy content from selected women’s magazines. The system requires all Wal-Mart stores to place plastic U-shaped blinders on the magazine covers of Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Marie Claire and Redbook. The decision comes after the corporation’s decision last month to remove multiple lines of men’s magazines — Maxim, FHM and Stuff — from its stores.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk said the blinders are an attempt to satisfy customers who feel uncomfortable with the racy content, most specifically headlines, that appear on the women’s magazines.

Therefore, a solid, white blinder will cover both the left and right side of the magazines, still leaving the titles and models visible to customers.

“In our efforts to strike a balance between customers who are comfortable and those uncomfortable with the magazine this will only be used at checkout lanes,” Burk said. “We’ve had customers say they were uncomfortable and their children were seeing that too.”

The Hearst Corporation, publisher of Cosmo, Marie Claire and Redbook, publications typically feature articles on sex advice, beauty tips and health. Burk said there is no specific list of words that would trigger Wal-Mart placing a blinder on the magazines. Rather, the retailer plans to implement this system on every monthly issue. If it is later decided that a model’s appearance on the cover of any of the specified magazines is too “racy,” Burk said Wal-Mart’s merchandising department would re-evaluate the situation.

“We continue to be dedicated and listen to customers,” Burk said. “We tested these concepts early on and we have merchandising teams who have been contacted with complaints, and we believe this is what our customers want.”

Burk could not give a specific number of complaints that have been filed against the specified publications.

Corrine Sudberg, public relations representative for Hearst Corp., would not conduct an interview, but issued a statement addressing Wal-Mart’s decision instead. According to the release, the publishing company believes that a magazine cover is a major “marketing tool” for reaching an audience.

The release continues to state: “We firmly believe that freedom of choice is fundamental to the American way of life, and therefore, believe that millions of people who enjoy their favorite magazines should not be deprived of their ability to purchase them with full knowledge of their content.”

Burk said Wal-Mart’s decision to cover the magazines doesn’t deprive readers because they are still given the choice to view publications before making a purchase.

“If a customer chooses to buy the magazine, the blinder is only on the first magazine in the display and the magazine cover is fully visible,” Burk said. “And if they feel they want to view the (entire) cover they have the choice of going to the periodical section.”

But last month, Dennis Publishing, publisher of Maxim, FHM and Stuff, stated that its magazines were being singled out when Wal-Mart decided it would no longer sell issues because of “racy” content.

Drew Kerr, public relations representative for Maxim, would not comment on Wal-Mart’s decision to obscure women’s magazine covers.

“When everything happened with Maxim, Dennis Publishing issued a statement and that is it,” Kerr said.

Though Wal-Mart only represents one percent of Dennis Publishing’s total circulation, the company disagreed with Wal-Mart’s decision. It argued that that the content of its publications was “no more provocative than those of other men’s magazines such as GQ, Esquire, Details and Rolling Stone — and usually less provocative than the covers and contents of many women’s magazines.”

In previous years, Wal-Mart has been criticized for regulating the sales of CDs and the lyrics that the retailer considers offensive are edited from audio format before the merchandise is put on display. Alternative media, such as Wired, expressed its concern that the corporation’s decisions were damaging free speech. Some critics on say that Wal-Mart’s recent decision with magazines is a similar situation.

“That was not the case then and it still isn’t now,” said Gene Policinski, deputy director of the First Amendment Center. Policinski said it is not a First Amendment issue because the amendment only applies to government entities that censor speech..

“I can still buy those magazines and they are still available to me,” Policinski said. “I think this is really an economic issue.”