The Newseum’s mission statement proclaims its dedication to a free press and the point is hammered home on the building’s exterior where the First Amendment is inscribed on 74-foot-tall stretch of marble.
So it has surprised a few visitors and supporters of the museum in Washington to find that its gift shop is selling a T-shirt that reads “You Are Very Fake News.”
The museum’s hawking of the shirt, on sale Friday for $19.97, was pointed out by the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.
“I think it’s obviously intended as a joke,” said Robert MacNeil, an author and a Newseum trustee emeritus. “I don’t think it’s a great joke.“
“Fake news,” of course, has become a rallying cry for President Trump and his supporters who contend the news media present a distorted view of the president and his administration and fabricate facts. The rhetoric has escalated to the point where Mr. Trump has said journalists are the “enemy of the people.”
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.
“If they’re that strapped for cash, I’m happy to make a donation,” Jim Acosta, the chief White House correspondent for CNN said. Mr. Acosta has been a frequent target of the president and his allies, and Mr. Trump’s supporters have gone so far as to call him a “traitor” at rallies.
The Newseum has struggled financially since it opened its new home on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2008, besieged by crippling debt and an expensive building in a city with several free museums. Merchandising has provided a crucial income flow.
So in addition to the “Fake News” T-shirt, there’s a coloring book that depicts Mr. Trump as a superhero and a red “Make America Great Again” hat. Those hats, and F.B.I. hats, are the biggest sellers, Sonya Govankar, the director of public relations for the museum, told Poynter.
In an email, Scott Williams, the president and chief executive officer of the museum, pointed out, “We sold a lot of Obama merchandise while he was president and during his campaigns and it was the same sort of merchandise: buttons, T-shirts, posters, etc.”
But “Fake News?”
“We recognize why you’re asking the question,” Ms. Govankar said in a statement to Poynter.
She described the inclusion of the shirt in the museum’s offerings as an attempt to celebrate free speech.
“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,” she said.
Indira Lakshmanan, the chairwoman for journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, questioned this explanation.
“The Newseum says this is about ‘freedom of speech,’ but it feels as if there’s some confusion in definitions here,” Ms. Lakshmanan said in an email. “It’s appropriate for critics of the press to have freedom to air their views. But I think it’s very off message for a museum dedicated to press freedom to sell ‘fake news’ merchandise quoting daily attacks by the president intent on discrediting the press.”
Mr. Williams said the sales of the Trump-related items do not directly benefit the president or his campaign.
“Like all our hats, T-shirts, buttons, etc., those are purchased from a third-party manufacturer,” Mr. Williams said. “The phrase is not trademarked, and no, Trump nor his campaign see any revenue from the sales of that or any other merchandise. Of course, those hats are sold as souvenirs all over D.C., and I’m sure they come from a variety of companies.”
But the optics, nevertheless, raised eyebrows.
“I’m not sure that I think it’s the greatest, especially with the Newseum logo on there,” Esther Wojcicki, a Newseum board member and a journalism teacher, said. “You’re kind of like a walking billboard when you’re wearing a T-shirt. You want to promote a message in one glance.”
Mr. Williams of the museum said that the message behind the “Fake News” shirt is not quite as direct as some critics are suggesting.
“Fake news is a word that is in our popular culture now,” he said, “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.”