The Enemy of the T-Shirt

In the name of free speech, journalists suppress a slogan.


It took less than 24 hours for the Newseum, a Washington-based museum of news and free speech, to capitulate. Its crime, according to finger-wagging journalists? Lending support to Donald Trump in a tawdry quest for dollars.

On Friday the Poynter Institute, which describes itself as “the world’s leading instructor . . . for anyone who aspires to engage and inform citizens in 21st century democracies,” published an item on its website reporting that the Newseum’s gift shop was selling T-shirts with the words “Fake News.” That phrase has become a presidential shibboleth, used by Mr. Trump to disparage news that’s unhelpful to him. The Poynter report was intended to elicit outrage from readers, who were told “you don’t have to look very far to see how Trump’s favorite catchphrases are being used to delegitimize the press.”

The Enemy of the T-Shirt

The Poynter story was picked up by the New York Times, whose own reporter repeated that “fake news” had become “a rallying cry for President Trump and his supporters” to heap scorn on journalists. “So the idea that the shirt would be sold at a museum that honors journalists seemed a bit confusing to some in Washington who practice that craft.”

The Times proceeded to quote CNN’s Jim Acosta, “a frequent target of the president,” who said that if the Newseum was “that strapped for cash, I’m happy to make a donation.” The Times also quoted the chairwoman for journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute: “I think it’s very off message for a museum dedicated to press freedom to sell ‘fake news’ merchandise.”

The Newseum abased itself the next day. In a press release titled “Statement on Store Merchandise,” it said it had removed the T-shirts: “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.”

This sweeping mea culpa leads one to wonder how well the folks at the Newseum know their history. “Fake news” isn’t Mr. Trump’s own coinage. He first tweeted the phrase on Dec. 10, 2016, several months after his media detractors had used it as a barb against him. The modern paternity of the phrase, in other words, lies with the people who wanted to kill off the T-shirt.

But its first recorded use predates the Trump presidency by some distance. On June 7, 1890, the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune headlined a story thus: “Secretary Brunnel declares that fake news about his people is being telegraphed over the country.”

That said, the main objection to the Newseum’s decision isn’t pedantic. It has misunderstood completely the semiotics of the T-shirt. Who takes a T-shirt’s text literally? Wearers put them on for all sorts of reasons, frequently in pursuit of irony. Donning a T-shirt that blares “Fake News” on its front can just as easily be a subversion of the idea—a slap at Mr. Trump—as an endorsement of it.

You’d think the guardians of journalism would get that—even as they strong-arm a museum dedicated to free speech to pull a T-shirt whose message they dislike.

Mr. Varadarajan is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Appeared in the August 7, 2018, print edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.