August 7th, 2018 – A museum in D.C. that works to increase the public’s understanding of the importance of a free press had a head-spinning day of irony over the weekend. After taking heat for selling “Fake News” t-shirts, the Newseum initially defended the merchandising decision but by the day’s end issued a press release apologizing and announcing the shirt’s removal.
The Newseum is a popular destination for both locals and tourists of our nation’s capital. With seven levels, the interactive museum has 15 galleries and 15 theaters that help visitors realize how the freedoms laid out in the First Amendment affect their daily lives. And after people have soaked up all the knowledge they can, they go to the place we all really want to check out: the gift shop.
Inside the Newseum’s gift shop you can regularly find books, shirts, hats, mugs, a print of the Declaration of Independence, and, yeah, even a head massager. Most items reflect the 501(c)(3)’s nonpartisan position and don’t necessarily endorse any particular politician. Recently, however, the Newseum began selling MAGA and Fake News hats and shirts.
On Saturday, Poynter published a story about the merchandise additions, including an explanation from the Newseum’s director of public relations Sonya Gavankar.
“We recognize why you’re asking the question,” she told Poynter. “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.”
That line of thinking didn’t sit well with journalists who continue to fight an uphill battle with the Trump administration. Just last week, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders twice declined to denounce the president’s labeling of the press as “the enemy of the people.” Her decision came less than two months after five people were killed in a targeted attack on the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.
Responding to the pushback, the Newseum published a press release within hours of Poynter’s story saying they will no longer sell the “Fake News” apparel in their gift shop or online store.
“The Newseum has removed the ‘You Are Very Fake News’ t-shirts from the gift shop and online,” the statement read. “We made a mistake and we apologize. A free press is an essential part of our democracy and journalists are not the enemy of the people.”
The announcement also included follow-up regarding merchandise with former and current presidential slogans (the charity never spelled out the word “MAGA” in its press release) and their decision to sell them in order to preserve freedom of speech.
“Questions have also been raised regarding other merchandise. As an organization that celebrates the rights of people from all political spectrums to express themselves freely, we’ve historically made all types of political merchandise available for our guests to purchase. That has included former and current presidential slogans and imagery and merchandise from all political parties. We continue to do so in celebration of freedom of speech.”
Do you think the Newseum made the right call pulling its “Fake News” shirts? How should we balance freedom of speech with supporting an open and free press?