If a newspaper offends no one, it's not worth printing

Hardly a week goes by that I don't get a call from someone saying something should not have been published in the newspaper.

It was untrue, unworthy, unnecessary and/or counter to some perceived principle of worthiness to which the citizens, or their children, should never have been so basely and wantonly exposed. I generally make some futile gesture at persuading the caller that a newspaper should be a fairly open forum. But reason seldom cools the heat of high dudgeon.

One morning this past week we received two scathing indictments of an editorial cartoon by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Ramirez. The cartoon depicted a donkey, girded with a suicide bomber vest labeled health care, shouting, "Obama Akbar!"

Michael Stilley called the cartoon "the most distasteful, inflammatory, unintelligent and racist political opinion I have ever seen. I have come to accept the biased opinions and editorials from the Review-Journal, but this 'cartoon' should have no place in any publication ... It is too bad our Founding Fathers did not put a requirement in the free speech amendment to include good taste and a minimum two-digit IQ."

Thomas Carroll barked, "Have you no shame?"

We printed both letters.

In replying to such upbraidings l've been known to futilely blurt: If we were only allowed to print inerrant truth, we would print nothing but Bibles or Qurans -- but which one?

When all else fails, turn to the masters of argumentation, those who've been there, done that and written the book on it.

That's why I now have hanging over my phone a printout of Ben Franklin's "Apology for Printers."

In 1731, Franklin printed an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette seeking passengers for a ship sailing to Barbados. The ad rather bluntly discriminated by declaring the ship would not accept for passage any "Black Gowns ... on any Terms," black gowns being a euphemism for the clergy.

As well one might expect in a pious burg populated by Quakers and Presbyterians, the fur and the epithets flew.

So, in his characteristically unapologetic tone, Franklin published "Apology for Printers."

I plan to commit to memory some of the passages for the appropriate occasion, which I'm sure will arise sooner, rather than later:

"Being frequently censur'd and condemn'd by different Persons for printing Things which they say ought not to be printed, I have sometimes thought it might be necessary to make a standing Apology for my self, and publish it once a Year ... I find an Apology more particularly requisite at this Juncture ...

"I request all who are angry with me on the Account of printing things they don't like, calmly to consider these following Particulars

"That the Opinions of Men are almost as various as their Faces; an Observation general enough to become a common Proverb, So many Men so many Minds.

"That the Business of Printing has chiefly to do with Men's Opinions; most things that are printed tending to promote some, or oppose others."

Franklin took the occasion to paraphrase John Milton's "Areopagitica" in his apologia:

"Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they chearfully serve all contending Writers that pay them well, without regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute."

He even presaged my plea to angry readers:

"That if all Printers were determin'd not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed."

Then, as now, there is no accounting for a reader's taste in material. The gossip is often more ravenously consumed than the lofty ideas and debate over the commonweal:

"That if they sometimes print vicious or silly things not worth reading, it may not be because the People are so viciously and corruptly educated that good things are not encouraged. I have known a very numerous Impression of Robin Hood's Songs go off in this Province at 2s. per Book, in less than a Twelvemonth; when a small Quantity of David's Psalms (an excellent Version) have lain upon my Hands above twice the Time."

Franklin then quotes a bit of doggerel from the poet Edmund Waller:

"Poets loose half the Praise they would have got

"Were it but known what they discreetly blot;

"Yet are censur'd for every bad Line found in their

"Works with the utmost Severity ..."

You should've seen what we didn't print.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at lvrj.com/blogs/mithcell.