The discussion of the appropriateness of publishing cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad underlines that while newspapers in the West have broad freedom to publish, virtually all exercise levels of discretion over what goes into print.
A newspaper could print any or all of the vulgar words for body parts or sexual congress without fear of punishment for obscenity — a circumstance that was not always the case in this country. And most newspapers have style guidelines severely restricting the occasions on which offensive ethnic terms or other slurs can be published.
When people left homeless by last year’s hurricanes objected strenuously to being described as refugees, The Sun and many other newspapers ceased to use the word in that context. That was a defensible decision to refrain from offending readers pointlessly.
Each newspaper establishes its own level of decorum, or lack of it, to reflect the tastes and preferences of its audience. When it was disclosed, for example, that Monica Lewinsky had preserved a blue dress as a souvenir of an encounter with President Bill Clinton, The New York Times did not use the phrase “semen-stained dress” until several paragraphs into the continuation of the story on an inside page. The Daily News, in contrast, ran the headline SHE KEPT SEX DRESS.
Diction and decorum are elements of the identity a publication presents to its readers, and editors make multiple decisions every day on the suitability of material and language.
Editing goes on everywhere. When the Commonwealth of Kentucky made Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” its state song, no objection was heard to the second line: “’Tis summer, the darkies are gay.” In a more enlightened era, the legislature rewrote the line to the less objectionable “’Tis summer, the people are gay.” Replacing the odious darkies with an innocuous disyllable was easy enough, but the legislature did not address gay, which, as a rhyme word, would be harder to replace.
Of course, it may be that the good people of the commonwealth have no particular objection to gay. Besides, the song is mainly sung on Derby Day, at which point the singers are typically so far gone in liquor that they are little likely to attend to the words.