Operating from deep in the heart of Mississippi, a fundamentalist minister named Donald E. Wildmon strikes terror into the hearts of corporation executives everywhere by organizing wildly successful boycotts of firms that advertise on television shows Wildmon considers "indecent" or does he?
Wildmon and his Tupelo-based American Family Association (originally called the National Federation for Decency) first came to prominence in the late 1970s when he promised to clean up television. He vowed to organize boycotts against companies that placed ads on shows that he believed contained too much sexual content.
Wildmon, a 63-year-old United Methodist minister, often takes the credit when companies pull ads from certain programs, but his effectiveness has been hotly debated. Journalist Fred Clarkson reported in his 1997 book Eternal Hostility that companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Holiday Inn stood up to Wildmon's boycott threats and suffered no ill effects.
Over the years, Wildmon's AFA has become a profitable family enterprise. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, the group's budget was just under $10 million, and total assets were valued at $17.5 million. In 1991, Wildmon built WAFR, a radio station in Tupelo that broadcasts via satellite to 156 stations, reaching people in 27 states with a mix of gospel music and news.
Wildmon's son, Tim, now serves as vice president of the AFA and is apparently preparing to assume the mantle of leadership when his father, who has had heart trouble, steps down.
As the group grew, it took on other issues. The AFA website contains the standard Religious Right mix of attacks on public schools, public libraries, reproductive rights and gay people. There is also an entire section, labeled the "National Clearinghouse on Marilyn Manson Info," chronicling the activities of the flamboyant shock rocker.
(Some of the AFA's recommended links are interesting, to say the least. Kjos Ministries, www.crossroad.to, is "heartily recommended" by Wildmon for its pages attacking the popular "Harry Potter" books and Pokemon cards, both of which are accused of promoting witchcraft. The Kjos site also asserts that PBS's popular "Teletubbies" program for toddlers is part of a United Nations-led plot to impose a "global agenda for lifelong learning" on the United States.)
But Wildmon's bread and butter remains blasting television sitcoms for their sexual content. He and his supporters apparently have a lot of time on their hands, as they sit and doggedly record every mention of sex in sitcoms. These are summarized in the AFA's monthly magazine, the American Family Association Journal.
It may be easy to dismiss such tactics as just a tad compulsive, but Wildmon watchers assert that he is more than just a noisy crank obsessed with sex talk on TV. They note that in 1991 the AFA's law center filed a lawsuit against a California public school district over the use of a series of readers called "Impressions."
Wildmon asserted that the books promoted humanism and witchcraft. The courts found the AFA's claims without merit, and the suit was unsuccessful. But the fuss spooked publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston, which stopped producing the series, despite the praise it had earned from many educators.
Wildmon has also been accused of dallying with anti-Semitism. During a 1985 speech before the National Religious Broadcasters, Wildmon cited a survey of top media executives conducted by two researchers, claiming that the results "indicated that 59 percent of the people who are responsible for network programming were raised in Jewish homes. If the people who control the networks in Hollywood were 59 percent Christian and if they were only 1 percent as anti-Semitic as the networks are currently anti-Christian, there would [be] a massive public outcry from the national liberal secular media."
The researchers who did the study did not support Wildmon's conclusions, and one of them later wrote to Wildmon and advised him to stop distorting its findings. Nevertheless, Wildmon continued to cite the study for the next four years. He also ignored letters on the topic from the Anti-Defamation League.
The ADL has also noted that the AFA Journal has reprinted articles critical of Israel from The Spotlight, a far-right, virulently anti-Semitic newspaper published by Willis Carto, a Holocaust "revisionist."
Wildmon claims nearly half a million members and hundreds of local chapters, but critics are skeptical of those figures. With his crusade to post "In God We Trust" posters in public schools, Wildmon may be trying to make the leap from monitor of naughty TV to major player in the Religious Right. Only time will tell how successful he will be.