In 1945 (in The American Language: Supplement 1), H.L. Mencken decried “the extraordinary prudishness of the American newspapers, which always hesitate to report genuine profanity in full, or even any harmless discourse quoting its more familiar terms.” While things have loosened up a bit in the seven decades since Mencken registered his complaint, there are still certain four-letter words that are considered off-limits for most American papers, including shit.
The New York Times famously made an exception to the no-shit rule in 1974 when it transcribed a line from Nixon’s Watergate tapes, “I don’t give a shit what happens.” Times editor Abe Rosenthal was quoted at the time as saying “We’ll only take shit from the President,” an edict that again came into play in 2006 when a live microphone caught George W. Bush dropping an S-bomb. There have been a few other shit sightings in the Times since then, though the so-called Obama Doctrine of “Don’t do stupid shit” has been decorously bowdlerized as “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
Beyond the Times, shit has worked its way into some U.S. newspapers since the relaxation of linguistic taboos in the late ’60s. Countercultural publications led the way, as with The Realist and its 1966 shit-in, or The Village Voice reporting on hippie activists in 1967. By the ’70s and ’80s more mainstream papers were joining in, too, and not just when quoting the president.
But before all that, in the era of “extraordinary prudishness” to which Mencken referred, shit typically would only make it into the newspaper thanks to some sort of typesetting shenanigans. Here I’ve collected some of the accidental/prankish shits that have come to light in searches of digitized databases.