Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Newseum draws backlash for selling Trump apparel – August, 2018

Washington, D.C.

The Newseum is a private, non-governmental Washington, D.C., museum whose mission, according to its website, is “to increase public understanding of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment.” It occupies a prominent location on Pennsylvania Avenue, near the US Capitol. In addition to exhibits that highlight the press’s historical importance and how it connects with everyday people, the Newseum also has in-house and online gift shops where visitors can purchase press-related and political memorabilia. After the Newseum began selling hats and T-shirts bearing slogans made popular by President Donald Trump, members of the press heavily criticized the decision.

Key Players

Daniel Funke is a reporter for The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to best practices and ethics in journalism, located in St. Petersburg, Florida. Funke covers fact-checking, online misinformation, and “fake news” for the institute’s daily newsletter, Poynter. He broke the story of the Newseum’s sale of Trump-related paraphernalia.

Sonya Gavankar is director of public relations at the Newseum. At first, she defended the museum’s decision to sell the political apparel.

Further Details

On August 3, 2018, Funke published a story in Poynter about the Newseum’s online store. The article focused on hats and T-shirts bearing the slogans “Make America Great Again” and “You are very fake news,” the latter a reference to a broadside President Trump has used repeatedly against the media since beginning his 20016 presidential campaign. “You don’t have to look very far to see how Trump’s favorite catchphrases are being used to delegitimize the press,” Funke wrote.

The Newseum at first defended the decision to sell the products, with Gavankar telling Poynter that one of the Newseum’s “greatest strengths” is that it not only champions a free press but also Free Speech.

A swift backlash followed from journalists on social media. Members of the press criticized the Newseum’s decision, some questioning whether it was appropriate to promote an epithet the president commonly uses to delegitimize the media and sow skepticism about their work.

Michael Barbaro, New York Times journalist and host of “The Daily” podcast, called the decision “a very bad idea” in a Twitter post on August 3. “You exist to honor, examine and protect the news media, not embrace the bywords by which others seek to undermine it,” he wrote. One of the Newseum’s most prominent attractions is a memorial wall with the names of all the journalists who have been killed, or have disappeared, while doing their job.

Washingtonian, a local D.C. magazine, also condemned the decision, writing that “[The use of the term is] a cynical political strategy that reflects years of work performed by very well paid people whose goal was to paint the news media as a political faction—as well as a rallying cry for people who view newsgathering errors not as the inevitable result of human endeavor but as confirmation of malice.”

But Gavankar said the Newseum viewed the slogan differently. In an August 3 statement to CNN, Gavankar said “Fake news is a word that is in our popular culture now and this is intended to be a ‘satirical rebuke’ and appears in our store with T-shirts that include a variety of other ‘tongue-in-cheek’ sayings.” Moreover, she told Poynter that “The MAGA hat and the FBI hat are two of our best-selling items.” (The Newseum also sells a hat with the acronym for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.)

CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter suggested that turning a profit may have been the museum’s true motivating factor, writing in an August 3 tweet that “the Newseum says this is about championing ‘free speech.’ The more cynical read: The museum is deep in debt, strapped for cash, and tourists like these trinkets.” Stelter appeared to be referencing a February 7, 2018, report in The Washington Post on the museum’s financial woes, which include fundraising shortages and a $300 million debt burden for its main benefactor. Stelter’s colleague, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, has frequently had the phrase “fake news” shouted at him as an insult while covering Trump rallies.

Outcome

Newseum pulls political apparel from online shop

The day after the story broke, the Newseum announced it would no longer be selling the “You are very fake news” T-shirts, saying it had “made a mistake” and would, therefore, apologize. “A free press is an essential part of our democracy and journalists are not the enemy of the people,” Gavankar said in a statement to TIME magazine that was also posted to the Newseum’s website, drawing on another phrase Trump has used to excoriate the news media. The Newseum said it would continue selling other Trump-related apparel.

Following the lightning-fast resolution of the uproar, however, the suggestion emerged on social media that the financially strapped Newseum had been censored by the very people who defend Free Speech most aggressively. As the Washingtonian put it, some might see the sale of anti-media memorabilia as “admirable.”

If we present all sides of an issue, the thinking goes, we’re actually strengthening democracy,” as the magazine explained that point of view. “That sort of balance—the kind of thing that characterizes a metropolitan daily’s op-ed pages—certainly defines most of the items available in the museum’s gift shop, whose offerings are long on political souvenirs.

External References

“The Newseum is selling MAGA hats and ‘fake news’ T-shirts,” Poynter

“The Newseum is selling ‘Fake News’ T-shirts,” CNN

“Newseum pulls ‘fake news’ shirt after backlash,” POLITICO

“Newseum apologizes for selling ‘fake news’ T-shirts,” The Hill

“Washington’s Newseum Pulls ‘Fake News’ Shirts After Pushback From Journalists,” TIME

“People Are Furious at the Newseum for Selling “Fake News” T-Shirts. The Newseum’s Defense Is Making Things Even Worse,” Washingtonian

“Newseum pulls ‘fake news’ shirts after outcry from journalists,” The Washington Post

“‘A slow-motion disaster’: Journalism museum in talks about possible building sale,” The Washington Post

Newseum statement on store merchandise

About the Newseum

Prepared by Jesus Rodriguez ‘19

Uploaded August 23, 2018