Free speech and the debate over Fake News have intersected in the past week as the Newseum in Washington, DC made the decision to include T-Shirts from its gift shop which read ‘You Are Very Fake News,’ only to pull them less than a week later.
The Newseum originally defended its decision for selling the shirts, calling it ‘satirical rebuke,’ but released a press statement the next day calling for the removal of the controversial clothing line:
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) August 4, 2018
In selling the Fake News shirts, the museum was unironically undermining the era of Fake News we are in, and minimizing the power of the phrase as a whole. This subjects the ethics and integrity of journalism to question, which contradicts the museum’s six floors of exhibits spent celebrating and recognizing the profession as a service to the people.
Using the power of the platforms they have been given, journalists like Jim Heath and Matt Viser express these ideas.
I know the @Newseum is broke & looking for some quick cash, but selling "fake news" items is disgusting.
Those dead journalists, honored on the wall at the Newseum, were not fake. They were heroes. And selling Trump "fake news" items disparages their memory.
— Jim Heath (@JimHeathTV) August 3, 2018
This t-shirt doesn’t belong anywhere. It particularly doesn’t belong at the @Newseum, a place that celebrates journalism and has the First Amendment etched in stone outside its building. https://t.co/7ecmjcGOyq pic.twitter.com/AhEgRVA7wE
— Matt Viser (@mviser) August 3, 2018
Your "fake news" t-shirts aren't funny, @Newseum
They make a mockery of the reporters, whose names you have inscribed on your walls, who died for their vocation.
— Leigh Giangreco (@LeighGiangreco) August 3, 2018
Just this past year, the Newseum installed an exhibit on Fake News. The purpose of the exhibit was to analyze the effects of Fake News in the 2016 election, and “show how individuals can be powerful instruments in both spreading and stopping fake news.” So why go from criticism of the harmful phrase, to selling T-shirts with these controversial words on it?
A New York Times article explains the importance of merchandising for the Newseum. Because of the high rent and $22 entrance fee, the museum relies heavily on its merchandising to make money. The museum prides itself on its heavily political products and the economic aid it has provided in recent years.
The gift shop continues to sell controversial items such as MAGA products, books on ‘How to Win A Fight Against Liberals/Conservatives’ and a book on ‘Crazy Sh*t Presidents have Said.’ The Director of Public Relations for the museum, Sonya Gavankar explained that these products promote free speech. Gavankar gave the same reasoning for the shirts but retracted the statement the following day.
Not everyone opposed the clothing line, some interpreted it as the type of free speech the museum encourages. One twitter user defended the T-shirt, saying the First Amendment allows for Fake News to be printed and thus promotes the message of the museum. But this misinformation is dangerous and the Newseum fills its exhibits with journalists who spent their lives fighting to keep the public well informed through free press.
An opinion piece from Dan Gainor at Fox attacked the journalists who called the shirts wrong, writing “The cries of whiny journalists succeeded in banning speech that journalists didn’t like from the Newseum. (Irony alert!).”
While there is a sense of hypocrisy generated from all of this, there are limits to free speech such as defamation or fighting words and the threat of Fake News within journalism can be viewed as such.
Gainor is critical of the Newseum’s statement taking back the clothing line, turning it into an issue of partisanship: “Here’s the official statement from the Newseum (note the obvious anti-Trump dig at the end.)”
Others on twitter lashed out at the liberal media for “being upset over a t-shirt:”
Liberal defenders of the press were angrier about a dumb t-shirt being sold at Newseum than a racist being hired by the nation's preeminent newspaper.
And we wonder why public trust in journalism is at an all time low.
— Pradheep J. Shanker, M.D., M.S. (@Neoavatara) August 4, 2018
Fox released an article the day the T-shirts were pulled celebrating the massive success in sales of other Trump related merchandise. Amy Lieu writes, “the popularity of items associated with President Trump has been irritating many members of the media.”
Fake News is not a partisan issue and has only recently become synonymous with the right after Trump’s constant use of the phrase. Fake News is, however, a threat towards the integrity and morality of the press and journalism alike, which is why the shirts do not belong in an establishment meant to preserve the ideals and history of the profession.
“As a nonpartisan organization, people with differing viewpoints feel comfortable visiting the Newseum, and one of our greatest strengths is that we’re champions not only of a free press but also of free speech,” Gavarath originally said in a press conference.
But there have been instances recently where news that someone doesn’t agree with is subsequently called out as being “fake.” Despite the correlation between Fake News and the right, this type of misinformation is harmful to all aspects of the political spectrum and therefore does not coincide with the Newseum’s standing as a nonpartisan organization.
Reporter Karen Tumulty jokingly compared this incident to if the Air and Space Museum sold mugs that claimed the moon landing was faked. Likewise, promoting Fake News in an institution dedicated to the fight for the core freedoms of the First Amendment undermine the mission of the museum in the first place.