By Christopher M. Finan and Anne F. Castro
The Rev. Donald E. Wildmon has always claimed to be an "average guy." When he first came to the attention of the public, he was the leader of a boycott against advertisers who sponsored "sex, violence and profanity" on television. Wildmon insisted that he was not a censor but an outraged private citizen who was exercising his constitutional right to protest. But Wildmon is not an average citizen. His ambition is to remake American society. Nor is he content with the instruments of change provided by democratic institutions: he advocates the censorship of television, movies, books, magazines and recordings. During his 15-year campaign for censorship, he has tried to suppress:
* Television shows like Donahue, Wonder Years, Seinfeld, Major Dad, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, L.A. Law, Northern Exposure, and Quantum Leap
* Television dramas like Larry McMurtrys Lonesome Dove, Maya Angelous Sister, Sister, Absolute Strangers, The Alison Gertz Story, and Portrait of a Rebel: Margaret Sanger
* Movies like The Last Temptation of Christ and Ghost
* Magazines like Playboy, Penthouse, and Sassy.
* Recordings like Madonnas Like a Prayer.
Wildmons campaign began one night in December 1976. At the time, he was an obscure, 38-year-old United Methodist pastor, serving a church in Southaven, Mississippi. But he had always been ambitious. "Back in my younger days I reached the conclusion that the worst thing that could happen would be to come to the time of death and realize that my life had made no difference," Wildmon said. That night in 1976 as he sat watching television with his family, he found the vehicle for his ambitions. He later claimed that as he switched channels he was unable to find a single show that didnt feature sex, violence, or profanity. Wildmon interpreted this as a calling from God to take up the fight for purer television. He resigned his ministry in June 1977 and moved to Tupelo, Mississippi, 50 miles outside of Memphis to establish the National Federation for Decency. The NFD struggled in the beginning. According to his son, Wildmon was able to pay himself only $1,800 in the first seven months of the organizations existence; his wife began working to help the venture survive.
Wildmon found it difficult to establish an identity for the NFD. The first effort to attract national attention was a campaign called, "Turn the Television Off Week," which targeted mostly southern cities in July 1977. Wildmon claimed that his survey of television programming revealed that 54 per cent of all shows had sexual content. Wildmon said such a high proportion of sexual programming distorted real life. He was also upset that "90 percent" of the sex was adulterous. "The strategy of so much network programming is to appeal to the prurient interest of man and not to spend money for quality programming," Wildmon said. While Wildmon received some press attention, his television boycott did not have any effect.
Wildmons problem was how to exert power over the networks with an organization
that claimed only 1,400 members. Clearly, boycotts of television programs would
not work: the number of people who would turn off their sets at any one time
would never be large enough to register in the ratings. But a boycott of advertisers
had proven effective the year before in a campaign against the satire "Soap."
In the spring of 1978, Wildmon announced his first boycott of advertisers. He
told Sears that his supporters would boycott its stores until it withdrew sponsorship
of three shows at the top of his hit list -- "Threes Company,"
"Charlies Angels," and "All in the Family." Although
his following was miniscule, Wildmon used it to maximum effect by staging demonstrations
outside Sears stores in several parts of the country and in downtown Chicago
in front of the Sears building itself. The boycott worked. While denying it
was acting under pressure, Sears canceled its ads on "Threes Company"
and "Charlies Angels."
During 1979, Wildmon continued to make his voice heard. He attacked "Flesh and Blood," a television movie based on a novel by Pete Hamill, because it dealt with the subject of incest. He also attacked, "Portrait of a Rebel: Margaret Sanger," a movie about the leader of the movement for birth control. He struck out at CBS, accusing it of complicity in the murder of a little girl in Wichita Falls, Texas. The four-year-old was murdered by her mother, who had seen a similar crime committed when CBS broadcast "Exorcist II." "CBS must accept partial blame for her death," Wildmon insisted. "They were an accessory to the murder." An NFD picket outside CBS headquarters in New York carried a sign that insisted: "CBS Controlled by Satan."
Yet the NFD was making little progress. It was firmly anchored on the lunatic fringe of the hundreds of groups trying to change television to suit their tastes. Wildmon had a new weapon in the advertiser boycott, but he had been unable to secure the backing from larger, more established groups that he would need to launch a national campaign. He began to think that his future might lie in another direction. He ran for a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1980 but finished a distant third, garnering only 921 votes or 15 per cent of the total cast.
A month after his defeat in the Mississippi House race, Wildmon made another
effort to win backing for his advertiser boycott. He met with the Reverend Jerry
Falwell in Lynchburg, Virginia. Falwell, the leader of The Moral Majority, was
then at the peak of his career as a spokesman for the movement of conservative
church groups known as the "Religious Right." As Wildmon later told
the story, he held up before Falwell a dollar bill. "The networks dont
care about your moral values, but they do care about this," Wildmon said.
According to Wildmon, Falwell didnt require much persuading. "Great,"
he said. "Lets go with it." Wildmon said later that he believed
he had reached a turning point. As he sat in his motel room that night, he was
sure of victory. "Now I have the numbers," he recalled thinking. "Now
I have the clout. After three years of wandering in the wilderness, Ive
found a road to the Promised Land."
Two months later, in February 1981, Wildmon announced the organization of the Coalition for Better Television (CBTV), the group that would bring him national recognition. His alliance with Falwell enabled Wildmon to claim that CBTV represented 200 organizations with a combined membership of over three million. These three million people were prepared to back a boycott of the three advertisers who sponsored the worst programming on television, he announced. The targets of the boycott were to be selected following three months of monitoring by 4,000 members of the coalition. The monitors would rate the offending shows on the basis of "sex incidents per hour," scenes of violence and uses of profanity.
Few people outside of employees of the television networks and, to a lesser
extent, the advertising industry, attempted to answer Wildmon. One of them was
Peggy Charren, president of Action for Childrens Television and a strong
critic of the networks. Charren accused Wildmon of wanting to censor television.
Sex, violence, and profanity were only the beginning, she warned:
What will be the next target of the CBTVs censorship crusade.
A production of "A Streetcar Named Desire?" A documentary on teenage pregnancy? The news?
For the most part, however, the networks were forced to defend themselves.
The networks struck back in the final weeks of the CBTV rating period by releasing the results of opinion polls that showed the public opposed the boycott. A poll commissioned by ABC showed that 64 per cent believed that the popularity of a program should be the sole factor in determining what was on television. Only 1.3 per cent said that they would consider backing a boycott. The poll also showed that Falwell and Wildmon had little support even among evangelical Christians. It revealed that 55 per cent of those identifying themselves as members of the Moral Majority opposed efforts to force their opinions on others. CBS News reported that one third of the organizations listed as sponsors of CBTV disavowed any connection with the group.
Nevertheless, CBTV was beginning to harvest the fruit of its campaign. Advertisers had begun to crack under the threat of the impending boycott. The first important convert to the cause of CBTV-approved television was Owen B. Butler, the chairman of Procter and Gamble, the company that spent more on television annually than any other--nearly $500 million. In a speech to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences on June 16, Butler announced that his company had withdrawn advertising from 50 television shows over the past year. Butler denied the company had been responding to pressure from Wildmon, but he left little doubt that Procter and Gamble would take his advice in the future:
We think the coalition is expressing very important and broadly held views
about gratuitous sex, violence and
profanity. I can assure you that we are listening very carefully to what they say, and I urge you to do the same.
Television and advertising industry officials were shocked by Butlers
admission. Charren had been expecting it. "Based on what TV advertisers
did during the red scares of the 50s, this is exactly what I expected,"
Wildmon knew that he had Butlers ear. In remarks to reporters later, he revealed that Procter and Gamble had been speaking with CBTV for some time. "Weve had dialogues with P&G over a period of many months," Wildmon said. Nor was Procter and Gamble alone in seeking an accommodation with Wildmon. On June 26, the New York Times reported that several television advertisers had been invited to a meeting with CBTV officials. Wildmon confirmed that discussions were under way to reach a compromise that would prevent a boycott. Wildmon told the Associated Press that the boycott threat was having a decided effect. "Ive talked with six advertisers in the last week who have pulled 150 commercials off the air in the last four months," he said.
On June 29, at a CBTV press conference that had been scheduled to announce
the start of the boycott, Wildmon announced its cancellation. With Falwell and
Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum looking on, Wildmon told the press that
the boycott was no longer necessary because in their meetings with CBTV officials,
advertisers had promised to help "clean up" television. Wildmon refused
to identify the advertisers who had made these pledges. While he professed himself
satisfied, Wildmon warned that CBTV might institute a boycott in the fall if
the shows premiering then were objectionable. Falwell said his organization
was "raising funds for a war chest to buy and assist others in buying full-page
ads across the nation naming public enemy No. 1 or 2 or whoever they are and
listing their products."
Skeptics raised questions about the decision to cancel the boycott. They suggested that the networks opinion polls had trumped Wildmon. They said he was afraid of losing. "Let me tell you something," Wildmon said, replying to his critics. "I was raised to know that it was not a disgrace to fight and get whipped." But Wildmon had at least won a moral victory. The chairman of one of the nations biggest corporations had promoted his views as important for the nation. Even those who opposed his tactics endorsed his claim that television needed better programming.
But "better programming" is a subjective judgement. Wildmon insisted that his opposition to shows was based solely on objectively-measured levels of sex, violence and profanity. When Wildmon objected to a show because of its sexual content, however, it was not always because it was prurient but often because it presented sex in ways he disliked--outside marriage, between teenagers or partners of the same sex. He also opposed the mention of birth control, abortion and, later, AIDS. His criticism of profanity often had more to do with offensiveness of the subject of discussion than the use of vulgar words. Wildmons condemnation did not stop at shows like "Vegas" and "The Dukes of Hazzard," but extended to programs dealing with adult themes like "All in the Family," "Taxi," and "WKRP in Cincinnati." (See Addendum for a full list of the television programs attacked by Wildmon.)
Wildmons extremism clearly guided his attacks on programming during the balance of 1981. He was particularly unhappy about NBCs decision to develop a series based on a movie about an aging homosexual who permits a young woman and her daughter to move in with him. Wildmon, who saw the show as an attack on the institution of the family, said it was "utterly stupid" for NBC to undertake the series at the very moment when concern about television was at its peak. Tony Randall, the star of the proposed series, "Love Sidney," defended his show. "Its about compassion. Its about love. Its about the need people have for family. And theyre saying its anti-family," Randall said. As the preemptive strike on Randalls show indicated, Wildmon was not waiting for shows to be aired before attacking them. Wildmon condemned a fictionalized treatment of a series of murders of black children in Atlanta before the producer had decided to go ahead with the project.
Wildmons pose as a moderate was undermined later in the year when some
of his followers pushed his views about sex on television to their logical extreme.
He was forced to apologize to Phil Donahue, the talk show host, for a release
issued by one of the chapters of his National Federation for Decency that described
Donahue, whose show had won nine Emmy awards, as a "sex activist broadcaster."
The release said many of Donahues "sex shows" promoted abnormal
sex and threatened a boycott of Donahues sponsors. In an appearance on
"Donahue," Wildmon apologized for the release. He admitted that a
program on breast-feeding should not have been characterized as a "sex
program." But Wildmon soon resumed the offensive, insisting that his monitoring
showed that almost half of Donahues shows dealt with sex. He charged that
some urged acceptance of sex practices contrary to traditional Christian morality.
Wildmons appearance on "Donahue" showed how far he had come from Southaven, Mississippi. The threat of a boycott had given him national exposure. Now he was anxious to see what an actual boycott would achieve. In late 1981, Wildmon decided that the networks had not met his demands and that a boycott would be necessary after all. But just as Wildmon was preparing to realize his dream, Jerry Falwell withdrew his support for the tactic of boycotting advertisers. The division between Wildmon and Falwell had first become apparent in a television documentary, "Eye of the Beholder," broadcast in late 1981. It was this documentary that first reported Wildmons determination to proceed with the boycott. It also revealed that Falwell was having second thoughts. He appeared to take to heart the survey results released in June that showed his own followers rejecting efforts to force the Moral Majoritys views on others. Falwell told the interviewer that the Moral Majority had raised $2 million for the boycott but then suggested that his group would not back coercive efforts to change programming. The Moral Majoritys resignation from the boycott was confirmed by a spokesman for the group in late January 1982. "Our feeling is that the networks are headed in the right direction," he said.
In the absence of the Moral Majority, Wildmon changed his plans. Falwell had promised $2 million for publicity for the boycott before he backed out, and publicity was critical because the boycott depended upon the consumers ability to recognize the targets products in the market place. Lacking funds, Wildmon abandoned the proposed boycott of advertisers. At a news conference in February 1982, he announced a boycott against RCA, the owner of NBC.
Wildmon also revealed new demands. "Our concerns have been too narrow
and will be expanded," he explained. "Our concerns about sex, violence
and profanity in programs is valid, but there will be more. Were going
to surprise some people." He demanded changes in
the way NBC handled 11 subjects. Besides sex, violence and profanity, he wanted
fewer depictions of drug abuse and "racial and religious stereotyping."
The network would have to make an effort to portray life as it was lived by
Christians, Wildmon said. "RCA-NBC has excluded Christian characters, Christian
values and Christian culture from their programming," he charged. Wildmon
also wanted to see an improvement in the portrayal of American business. Wildmon
claimed that business executives had been painted as "crooks and con men."
During his news conference, Wildmon had demonstrated again that he was not reluctant to criticize a popular show by singling out for attack NBCs award-winning dramatic series, "Hill Street Blues," which he said was full of sexual innuendo. Several months later, he showed that he was not afraid to attack a show with serious artistic intentions either. NBC was preparing to broadcast a movie that had been written by the poet Maya Angelou. "Sister, Sister," was the story of how three black sisters in North Carolina resolved the differences that separated them. Wildmon had not seen the movie. Apparently reacting to a part of the story in which a minister committed adultery and stole the church receipts, Wildmon claimed that "negative stereotyping of people identified as Christian in the film is an example of a continuing trend by RCA-NBC and an example of anti- Christian, anti-religious network programming." The advertisers responded to his complaints: 12 of the 28 sponsors asked to see the program again, and one sponsor, Kodak, withdrew its ads after determining that the film was not sufficiently "family-oriented." Author Jessica Mitford rejected Wildmons criticisms in a letter to the New York Times. She pointed out that "Sister, Sister" was the type of program that Wildmon had said he approved:
Psychological drama of the highest order, "Sister, Sister," achieves a stunning breakthrough as a sensitive portrait of a three-dimensional, non- stereotypical black family. No wild car chases, no prostitution, no drugs, no teen-age crime--in short, no sex or violence (sorry about that Mr. Wildmon).
Wildmon had revealed himself for what he was: a Christian minister who believed
that television should reflect his own world view, including his high opinion
of Christian ministers. He had also shown himself as a man with an insatiable
appetite for change, one change making him hungry for the next. As a result,
he lost the support of many who had formerly sympathized with him. A day of
reckoning was fast approaching.
Judgement day fell at the close of the third quarter of 1982. RCA reported earnings that demonstrated Wildmons boycott had not had an effect. Third quarter earnings were $47.6 million, an increase of $152.4 million over the third quarter of 1981 when the company had shown a loss. Wildmon replied by pointing to RCAs weak consumer products division, insisting that this was the part of the corporation most likely to be hurt by the boycott. But the boycott was clearly a failure. By early 1983, "Love, Sidney," the series starring Tony Randall that Wildmon had attacked before its premiere, had become a success and was inching closer to acknowledgment of Sidneys homosexuality. Before it became the target of Wildmons boycott, NBC had prevented Randall from striking back at Wildmon. Now, Randall dismissed Wildmon as "that ignorant, cynical, Bible-thumping ass in Mississippi." There was no lightning.
For his part, Wildmon had dropped any pretense of being a reformer. He no longer accused the networks of using sex, violence and profanity to gain ratings. The problem with the networks was that they were dominated by a "humanist" view of society. The "humanist point of view is that man came from nowhere, is going nowhere and has no responsibility to others," Wildmon said. Wildmon professed himself an apostle of the Christian view. The "Christian view is that man was created by God and that theres somewhere to go--heaven or hell--and some moral absolutes and moral guidelines to follow," he said. The conflict between the two was irreconcilable. "You have a clash of two distinct value systems," Wildmon said. The networks were trying to remake society in line with humanist values. Wildmon acknowledged that they were winning. "I dont think we have more than five or six years left to stem the tide," he said. "Television is the most destructive force in our society." It was clear that if Wildmon were in charge, television would be dominated by Christian values.
After the failure of the RCA boycott, the Coalition for Better Television lapsed.
Wildmon had fallen from the limelight, but he had not abandoned his ambition
to strike a devastating blow at the "humanist" media. He travelled
tirelessly in an effort to make his National Federation for Decency a grass-roots
organization. He also promoted his Journal, the major publication of
his organization. The Journal, which has changed little since then, carries
detailed criticism of individual television shows and lists the names and addresses
of their sponsors. Its columns explain the demise of American society as the
result of the increase of divorce, the growing presence of women in the work
force and other factors that are weakening the traditional family. It frequently
attacks birth control and abortion. The tone of the magazine is set by its description
of the many crimes that can allegedly be attributed to pornography, television
or movie violence and rock and roll music. The April 1989 Journal carried
a story in which a mother blamed the rock band the Grateful Dead for the drug
abuse problem that led her son to take hostages and be killed by the police.
Wildmon knew that organizing local chapters of the NFD would occur more quickly if the organizing occurred within the context of a larger campaign. In 1984, the NFD began a fight to ban Playboy and Penthouse magazines. As always, Wildmons tactic was not to attack the producers directly. He tried to strangle the magazines circulation through boycotts aimed at chain stores, including drug and convenience stores, where they were sold from "blindered" racks behind the counter. He returned to the picketing tactic that he had used against Sears, sending demonstrators to 7-Eleven and other stores. While Wildmon experienced some success against the smaller chains, the Southland Corporation, which owned 7- Eleven, and most major chains held firm. Wildmon campaigned for two years with meager results.
Wildmons return to national prominence was largely the result of actions taken by the national administration in Washington. Wildmon and other "anti-pornography" activists had strongly supported the candidacy of Ronald Reagan because, among other things, they believed that he would take strong measures to curb sexually explicit material. They were disappointed when Reagan took little action on the conservatives "social agenda" during his first term. Wildmon and other advocates of stricter censorship visited Reagan following his reelection to urge him to act. The result was the appointment of the Attorney Generals Commission on Pornography in 1985. The partisans of the new Commission were eager to see it rebut a previous commissions conclusion that sexually explicit material was not harmful to adults. The 1970 report by the Presidents Commission on Obscenity and Pornography recommended the abolition of obscenity laws. With the appointment of what became known as the Meese Commission in 1985, the anti-pornography activists acquired an important vehicle for their views, and Wildmon found another national forum. The Commission was chaired by a former prosecutor who had made his reputation by prosecuting adult bookstores and movie houses.
Wildmon did not waste his opportunity. At a public hearing in Los Angeles in October 1985, he told the Meese Commission that it must attack not only organized crime, reputed to be the major producer of hard-core obscenity, but also major corporations that were involved in the sale of non-obscene, First Amendment-protected material with sexual content. "The general public usually associates pornography with sleazy porno bookstores and theaters," Wildmon said. "However, many of the major players in the game of pornography are household names." Wildmon then proceeded to name them. Of course, the Southland Corporation was at the top of his list. But Wildmon alleged that 22 other corporations were involved in "pornography distribution," including CBS, Time, Ramada Inns, RCA, and Coca-Cola. The list also included three national distributors of magazines, 11 chain stores, including Rite Aid and Dart Drug Stores, and a chain of video stores, National Video.
Wildmons testimony before the Meese Commission became national news when,
without being identified as coming from Wildmon, it was incorporated into a
letter that the Commission sent to the corporations on Wildmons list.
The Commission informed the corporations that Wildmons characterization
of them as "distributors" of "pornography" would be included
in the Commissions final report. They were invited to reply to the charge
of their anonymous accuser. Instead, several lawsuits were filed to force the
Commission to withdraw its letter. Among the plaintiffs filing suits were the
American Booksellers Association, the Council for Periodical Distributors Associations,
and the Magazine Publishers of America as well as Playboy and Penthouse.
They accused the Commission of establishing a blacklist to coerce the corporations
receiving the letter into withdrawing First Amendment-protected material. A
federal judge ordered the Commission to retract the letter and barred it from
issuing any lists of retailers.
But the Meese Commissions letter had set in motion a chain of events that no judges order could arrest. Wildmons boycott campaign against the chain stores, like the campaign against the television advertisers, had made them extremely sensitive to adverse publicity. The Commissions letter was the straw that broke their backs. On April 10, 1986, the Southland Corporation announced that it was pulling Playboy and Penthouse from its 4,500 stores and recommending to 3,600 other 7- Elevens that were owned by franchisees that they get rid of them as well. The statement by Southland announcing the decision suggested that the chain was responding to evidence adduced by the Meese Commission that showed a link between "adult magazines and crime, violence, and child abuse." But Wildmon questioned Southlands altruism. He claimed that Southland had bent under the boycott. "It is a good example of what can happen when the Christian community stands together with selective buying," Wildmon said. "It took us approximately two years, but our voice was heard." By the time the Meese Commission was ordered to withdraw its letter in July, six of the chains targeted by the Commission had pulled Playboy and Penthouse and 34 smaller chains who didnt receive the letter had followed Southlands lead. More than 10,000 stores had stopped carrying the magazines. By August, the number had grown to 17,000.
The removal of Playboy, Penthouse and other mens "sophisticate" magazines from stores across the country had a domino effect, causing the removal of other magazines that were controversial for one reason or another. Magazines about rock and roll music, several teen magazines, the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, and issues of American Photographer and Cosmopolitan were removed from sale in some parts of the country in the panic set off by the Meese Commission letter.
Wildmon kept his name in the headlines in 1987 by attacking a controversial disc jockey and a mainstream hotel corporation. Wildmons complaint against "shock radio" personality Howard Stern may have been a factor in the decision by the Federal Communications Commission to expand its ban on "offensive" programming. At the same time, Wildmon was directing a boycott against the Holiday Inn hotel chain in an effort to stop it from making "R"-rated films available to guests in their rooms. However, demonstrations scheduled at 100 Holiday Inns across the country on April 18 failed to materialize. Only 13 hotels were picketed; the average demonstration numbered between five and 10 protesters, and demonstrations lasted for only a few hours.
In the spring of 1987, Wildmon prepared to resume his attack on television. He had never abandoned it entirely. The pages of the NFD Journal were full of condemnation for the current crop of programs and the people who sponsored them. In April 1987, Wildmon criticized the networks for dropping their ban on permitting bras to be modelled by live models. He predicted that the next step would be live underwear ads. The first sign of a new campaign came with the organization of Christian Leaders for Responsible Television as a successor to the Coalition for Better Television. In June, CLeaR-TV announced its first boycott, targeting Mazda Motors and Noxell for their sponsorship of television programs featuring sex, violence and profanity. Four months later, CLeaR-TV announced that Noxell and Mazda had agreed to reduce the amount of sex and violence it allegedly helped promote on network TV.
Ironically, just as Wildmon seemed to recapture some of the prestige he had lost after the RCA boycott, the NFD encountered financial problems. The scandal over evangelist Jim Bakkers sexual encounter with a Long Island church secretary hurt all organizations that depended for funds on evangelical Christians. Contribution to the NFD dropped sharply following Bakkers disgrace. The problem became so critical that Wildmon quietly folded the NFD at the end of the year. As he closed the 10-year-old NFD, Wildmon opened the American Family Association. Two controversies in 1988 helped Wildmon rebound from this setback.
The first was the protest over Martin Scorceses film, "Last Temptation of Christ." The film was opposed by many religious leaders because it portrayed Christ as a messiah struggling with human weaknesses, including sexual desire. While many Christian leaders condemned the film, Wildmon tried to suppress it. Wildmon asked his supporters to petition their local theaters in an effort to prevent the exhibition of the Universal Pictures film and announced a boycott against companies owned by Universals parent corporation, MCA. He also urged his followers to vote against the Democratic Party in the upcoming election because Lew Wasserman, the MCA chairman, was a major fundraiser for the Democrats. Among the demonstrations against the release of the film, two held in Los Angeles in July were widely interpreted as anti-Semitic. Wildmon acknowledged the incidents as "very unfortunate." However, he contributed to the controversy by demanding to know how many Christians served in top positions at MCA and Universal. The protests over the film culminated in demonstrations in seven cities on August 12, the day of the films release. The largest demonstration, involving 500 people, occurred outside a theater in New York. Despite the fact that several theater chains refused to show the film, "Last Temptation of Christ" set a box office record during its first week.
During the battle over "The Last Temptation of Christ," Wildmon claimed victory in another controversy when the creator of the "Mighty Mouse" cartoon agreed to cut 3 1/2 seconds of an episode that Wildmon had protested. The creator, Ralph Bakshi, had fallen under suspicion because of his role in making an X-rated animated feature, "Fritz the Cat." However, Bakshi had also won an award for "Mighty Mouse" from Action for Childrens Television. In the disputed episode, Wildmon charged Bakshi with portraying Mighty Mouse as experiencing drug-induced exhilaration after inhaling the petals of a flower. Mighty Mouse had sniffed cocaine, Wildmon contended. Bakshi defended his cartoon, insisting that Wildmon had interpreted the scene out of context. However, Bakshi said he was removing the scene because of his concern that the controversy might lead children to believe that what Wildmon was saying was true. Wildmon interpreted the cut differently. "This is a de facto admission that indeed Mighty Mouse was snorting cocaine," Wildmon said. "We have been vindicated."
Wildmon had survived another serious crisis. By the end of 1988, he had established AFA on a firmer footing than the National Federation for Decency had ever enjoyed. AFAs first tax return, filed for 1988, revealed an income of $5,228,505. All of the funds came from contributions and gifts. Wildmon was ready at last to take on his favorite target--the networks. In December, the representatives of CLeaR-TV, Wildmons television group, announced that they would boycott the worst advertiser at the conclusion of the sweeps period in May.
The announcement of the boycott threat in January 1989 had the same chilling effect on advertisers that it had in 1981. Kimberly-Clark and Tambrands announced they would not advertise on the show "Married...with Children." An Advertising Age story noted that a growing number of companies were reviewing the programs they sponsored more carefully. Less than two weeks after Kimberly-Clark and Tambrands withdrew from "Married...with Children," two advertisers who had been pressured by Wildmon pulled their ads from "Saturday Night Live." Ralston-Purina Company canceled $1 million in ads because one of the shows "crossed over the line of good taste." General Mills withdrew an undisclosed number of commercials. A month later, Dominos Pizza also pulled out, citing the efforts of the American Family Association as a factor in its decision. At about the same time, Wildmon scored another triumph when Pepsi bowed to his demand that it sever its connection with the singer Madonna because one of her music videos, "Like a Virgin," used religious imagery in a way that offended him. Advertiser fear had grown to such an extent by May that ABC was unable to find sponsors for sequels to two crime shows that had received respectable ratings. Wildmons blast at a movie dramatization of the Roe v. Wade case, which the critics praised for its even-handed treatment of the abortion controversy, cost NBC as much as $1 million in lost advertising revenue. Wildmon was now familiar to the networks, television advertisers, movie producers, video retailers, magazine publishers, booksellers and other retailers whom he had targeted, but he remained largely unknown outside business circles. In 1989, he found a new audience--Congress.
In early 1989, Wildmon learned that the National Endowment for the Arts had provided funding for an exhibit that included a photograph entitled "Piss Christ." The photograph by Andre Serrano depicted a crucifix submerged in a jar filled with the artists urine. Wildmon immediately launched a campaign against the NEA claiming that the tax dollars of the American people were being spent to support "pornographic, anti-Christian works of art." He sent a reproduction of the Serrano photograph to every member of Congress. Many were horrified. New York Senator Alfonse DAmato tore up the photograph on the Senate floor. He denounced the NEA for funding "shocking, abhorrent art" and demanded the agency deny funds to artists like Serrano.
NEA Endowment Chairman John Frohnmayer defended his agency. He charged that Wildmon was misrepresenting the Endowment by focusing on a handful of controversial works. One of the works that Wildmon attacked was part of an exhibit, "Tongues of Flame," by artist David Wojnarowicz. Discovering two small sexually explicit photographs in a collage-like painting entitled "Water," Wildmon had them enlarged and distributed to Congress, the media and the clergy, claiming "your tax dollars helped pay for these works of art." Wojnarowicz sued Wildmon for libel and copyright infringement. By using the two photographs to characterize the piece, Wildmon had turned his work into "banal pornography," Wojnarowicz charged. While the artists damage claims were dismissed, a Federal judge issued an injunction barring Wildmons further use of "Tongues of Flame."
Wildmons attack on the NEA was a smashing success. Congress barred the NEA from giving grants to artists whose work "might be deemed obscene." Although the obscenity ban was repealed in October 1990, Congress continued to require the Endowment to uphold "general standards of decency" when awarding grants. In recognition of his prominent role in the NEA controversy, the New York Times Magazine made Wildmon the subject of a cover story in September. (Wildmon refused to talk to the Times reporter. After what he described as years of media "misrepresentation," Wildmon had decided not to talk to a reporter unless he or she were willing to sign a contract giving him the right to make changes in the article.)
Wildmon lost little time in using his new celebrity status to further the campaign
for censorship. In September, he accused Burger King of being the "leading
sponsor of sex, violence, and profanity" on television, and threatened
to lead a boycott against it. The corporation immediately
came to terms. It agreed to publish newspaper ads throughout the country affirming
support for "moral" programming:
Burger King supports traditional American family
values, especially the importance of family... We pledge to support such programs with our advertising dollars.
What Burger King didnt know was that Wildmon was incapable of carrying out his threat of economic reprisals. His following was simply too small. In October 1990, Americans for Constitutional Freedom, an anti- censorship group, demonstrated the thinness of Wildmons support by publishing the results of a poll by Peter D. Hart surveying 504 adults in Seattle, Topeka, Abilene, Charlotte, N.C., and Boston. Only 20 per cent of those surveyed had heard of Wildmon or the AFA; and only two per cent "actively supported" them. The poll demonstrated that only 18 percent of those surveyed had ever participated in a boycott of any kind and that the overwhelming percentage of those who had were protesting corporate policies concerning labor or the environment. Less than two per cent reported participating in boycotts of controversial magazines like Playboy or television advertisers.
To test Wildmons effectiveness directly, the Hart poll asked whether the respondent had participated in the boycott of Clorox that Wildmon declared in March 1989. Only one percent said they had. This finding is supported by Clorox itself, which reported undiminished profits in late 1989. Indeed, no boycott by Wildmon has succeeded by inflicting economic losses on its target. By the end of 1992, Holiday Inn had been on the AFAs list for almost five years for offering X-rated films to their adult customers. Early in the boycott, the company reported that the boycott had actually helped rather than hurt its business. S.C. Johnson & Sons, the target of an AFA boycott since 1990, also reported increases in earnings. K-mart/Waldenbooks, Dairy Mart and Stop NGo have all successfully resisted Wildmons threats. It is not the boycott itself but the threat of a boycott with its potential for bad publicity that has worked for Wildmon. Experience shows that if the targeted company stands firm in the face of Wildmons threats, it need not fear economic damage.
Nevertheless, by the end of 1990, Wildmon had succeeded in establishing himself as the nations leading censor. This was only partly the result of his celebrity. It also stemmed from changes in the anti-pornography movement. Through most of its existence, the National Federation for Decency/American Family Association had competed with other censorship groups, including Citizens for Deceny through Law, the National Coalition Against Pornography, Morality in Media and Focus on the Family. The oldest and best established of these groups was the Citizens for Decency through Law, which had been founded as the Citizens for Decent Literature by lawyer Charles Keating, Jr., in Cincinnati in 1957. Keating, who once warned that bermuda shorts were a threat to morals, moved his group to Phoenix and grew very rich as a property developer during the 1980s. His success was capped by the purchase of the Lincoln Savings and Loan of California. Keating shared his wealth with CDL, contributing directly as well as through Lincoln Savings and its holding company. Salaries grew fabulously for a non-profit group. In 1986, Executive Director William Swindell received a salary of $175,000. General Counsel Benjamin Bull made $150,000. But in April 1989, Lincoln Savings was seized by Federal regulators, and Keating was charged with fraud. Without Keating, CDL soon folded.
Wildmon took steps to position the AFA as the successor to CDL. He hired Swindell
to manage relations with AFAs state chapters. He also hired Bull to head
a new AFA Legal Center, a five-lawyer operation that was designed to fulfill
some of the functions formerly undertaken by the CDL. Like CDL, the Legal Center
would attempt to boost enforcement of the obscenity laws by providing training
to law enforcement officials.
With the help of Swindell and Bull, the AFA exerted itself with renewed vigor in 1991. In 1990, Wildmon had begun a campaign to pressure K-mart to stop selling Playboy and Penthouse through its subsidiary, Waldenbooks. Now, he increased the pressure by accusing K-mart of selling "kiddie porn." AFA also threatened a boycott against Blockbuster Video, the nations largest video rental and retail chain, unless it agreed not to carry videos with the new NC-17 rating. Blockbuster, which already had a policy against carrying X-rated videos, soon announced its intention not to carry videos with the new rating.
As the Legal Center began to flex its muscles early in 1991, it became clear that it meant to do more than suppress obscenity. It promised to bring cases involving "anything affecting the traditional American family." In February, the AFA filed a Federal suit to block the Woodland Joint Unified School District in California from using a language arts and reading curriculum that included stories about witches and goblins. AFA alleged that the "Impressions" series taught the "religion" of witchcraft and, therefore, violated the constitutional right of students to be protected from the establishment of a religion. In April, the Legal Center filed an amicus brief urging the Kentucky Supreme Court to reverse a decision that held the states sodomy law unconstitutional.
In December 1991, the Legal Center became involved in another major case. Delores Stanley, a manager of a Dairy Mart store in Toronto, Ohio, defied company policy by refusing to sell Playboy, Penthouse, and other adult magazines in her store. Dairy Mart offered her a position in a store that didnt carry magazines. When she refused, she was suspended. With the Legal Center acting on her behalf, Stanley sued Dairy Mart, claiming that to force a woman to sell adult magazines constituted sexual discrimination and harassment. If the AFA prevails in the Stanley case, thousands of stores throughout the country would be forced to discontinue the sale of books, magazines, videos and recordings that are protected by the First Amendment out of a fear that a female employee may sue them. Stanleys case against the chain was pending at the end of 1992.
After four years of victories, Wildmon encountered several setbacks in 1992. He was unsuccessful in his attempt to bar the U.S. exhibition of a British documentary, "Damned in the U.S.A." Wildmon had been interviewed for the film after the filmmakers signed a contract that he believed gave him the right to determine whether it could be shown in the United States. When they tried to exhibit the film at the American Museum of Natural Historys Margaret Mead Film Festival without his permission, Wildmon sued them for breach of contract. The filmmakers and a coalition of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and People for the American Way, filed a suit to determine whether they could show the film without fear of legal action. In September, a Federal court ruled that Wildmon could not block the exhibition of the film and "Damned in the U.S.A." was released theatrically.
Wildmon received more bad publicity in the fall of 1992 when TV Guide published an unflattering profile. Having refused to speak to reporter Claudia Dreifus while the story was being prepared, Wildmon issued a press release condemning it upon its publication. He was particularly unhappy with the report that he had received a salary of $101,159 and a $14,400 tax-free housing allowance in 1990. (Wildmon said his actual salary was $72,500; the other $28,659 had been a bonus, the first he had ever received.) Dreifus also quoted criticism of Wildmon offered by religious television critics who oppose censorship. She reported that a motion to commend Wildmon at the Methodist General Conference in May had failed by a vote of 54 to 1. Wildmon did not respond to his religious critics or to Dreifus revelation of AFAs connection to Charles Keatings organization, CDL.
Another damaging story was published in November by the magazine Mother Jones. The article challenged the AFA claim of 640 chapters nationwide. It also raised questions about a purported "membership" of 450,000, which was based on the circulation of its Journal. Reporter Bill Dedman demonstrated that many of the local chapters were inactive or consisted of only a few members. By paying a fee of $25 to AFA, Dedman established his own chapter of the AFA so he could attend a conference for chapter leaders at the AFA headquarters in Tupelo. The conference attracted representatives from fewer than 40 chapters, Dedman reported. AFA membership claims are also exaggerated, he said. AFAs list of "active" contributors, meaning those who had contributed money in the past two year, consisted of 275,193 names. AFA itself acknowledges that many "subscribers" to the Journal are ministers who receive the magazine free.
Perhaps most ominous of all for Wildmon was the report in late 1992 that television advertisers were growing less skittish about explicit programming. The ability to pressure television advertisers had been Wildmons major weapon since the beginning of his crusade. But the television networks struck back by commissioning research on the effectiveness of Wildmons boycotts. In the fall of 1991, the Journal of Media Planning published a study by NBC researcher Horst Stipp that used survey data to demonstrate that Wildmons followers were not representative of viewers as a whole. Stipp supported his conclusion by citing a study by Daniel Linz and others showing that the viewing audience overwhelmingly supported a controversial NBC movie on date rape, "She Said No." December 1992, 179. These studies, together with the high ratings garnered by shows like "Roseanne," "Seinfeld" and "Civil Wars," appeared to convince television advertisers that there was no risk in sponsoring explicit programming so long as the shows were in good taste, the New York Times reported.
Although all organizations suffer setbacks, there were reasons for believing at the end of 1992 that Wildmons influence had begun to decline. Inevitably, his attacks had prompted new organizational efforts by his opponents. In 1990, Americans for Constitutional Freedom brought together Michigan booksellers, video retailers, magazine wholesalers, theater owners, librarians and others to fight a package of AFA backed pro-censorship legislation in the Michigan legislature. A petition drive gathered over 40,000 names and was a major force in defeating the bills. Artists responded to Wildmons attacks by founding the National Campaign for Free Expression to oppose content restrictions on NEA grants. Both commercial and non- commercial anti-censorship groups worked together in 1991 and 1992 to defeat the Pornography Victims Compensation Act (S. 1521) in Congress. Wildmon had endorsed the principle of the bill, which was that producers and distributors of works should be held liable for their alleged effects. Wildmon said he would hold the producers of the movie Deerhunter responsible for the deaths that occurred when people imitated the characters in the movie by playing Russian roulette.
It is clear that Donald Wildmons AFA will remain one of the countrys leading censorship groups for many years to come. With a budget of $7 million in 1992, the AFA is still a formidable adversary. Moreover, with the addition of advisers like the CDLs Swindell and Bull, Wildmons organization is more sophisticated than most of its competitors. But Wildmon appears to be losing credibility with his intended targets. Once individuals and companies begin ignoring his threats, it will be only a matter of time before the country discovers that Donald Wildmon is the leader of a very small army.
Television Series Attacked by the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon
A Man Called Hawk
A Different World
All in the Family
Anything but Love
Beverly Hills 90210
Cagney and Lacey
Captain Planet and the Planeteers
CBS Schoolbreak Special
Doogie Howser, M.D.
Dukes of Hazzard
Facts of Life
Gimme a Break
Good and Evil
Head of the Class
Heart of the City
Highway to Heaven
Hill Street Blues
In Living Color
In the Heat of the Night
Jack & Mike
Jake and the Fat Man
Kate & Allie
Laverne & Shirley
Law and Order
Lets Make a Deal
Life Goes On
Married With Children
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
Murder, She Wrote
My Two Dads
Nancy Walker Show
Saturday Night Live
Scarecrow and Mrs. King
Simon & Simon
Spenser for Hire
Threes a Crowd
Tour of Duty
Trapper John, M.D.
Under One Roof
West 57th Street
Whos the Boss
WKRP in Cincinnati
Wonder Years World of Disney
Year in the Life
Corporations Criticized by the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon for
Sponsoring Programs or Selling Material He Has Opposed
American Home Products
Circle K. Corporation
Ford Motor Co.
Grand Met Consumer Products
Gulf and Western
Johnson & Johnson
Johnson Wax Co.
Mazda Motors of America
North American Phillips
Procter and Gamble
Sara Lee Corp.
Topps Chewing Gum
Yamaha Motor Corp.