Newseum says it made a mistake and pulls Fake News shirts

“A free press is an essential part of our democracy and journalists are not the enemy of the people.”

US President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Olentangy Orange High School in Lewis Center, Ohio.
US President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Olentangy Orange High School in Lewis Center, Ohio. –Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

The Newseum in Washington, which caused a stir Friday after reports that it was selling a T-shirt reading “You Are Very Fake News,” announced Saturday that it was pulling the shirts from its gift shop and online store.

“We made a mistake and we apologize,” the museum, which is dedicated to press freedom, said in a statement on its website. “A free press is an essential part of our democracy and journalists are not the enemy of the people.”

“Fake news,” of course, has become a rallying cry for President Donald Trump and his supporters, who contend that the news media presents a distorted view of the president and his administration and fabricates facts. He has repeatedly called the press the “enemy of the people.”

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“Real news wins!” was the response on Saturday from Jim Acosta, the chief White House correspondent for CNN. When Acosta, who has been a frequent target of the president and his allies, heard on Friday about the shirts at the Newseum, he said, “If they’re that strapped for cash, I’m happy to make a donation.”

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 full of 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 Trump as a superhero and a red “Make America Great Again” hat. Those hats, and FBI hats, are the biggest sellers, Sonya Gavankar, the director of public relations for the museum, told the Poynter Institute, the journalism think tank that reported the sale of the shirts on Friday.

In its statement Saturday, the Newseum noted that although questions had been raised about gift items beyond the shirt, “we’ve historically made all types of political merchandise available.”

“That has included former and current presidential slogans and imagery and merchandise from all political parties,” the statement concluded. “We continue to do so in celebration of freedom of speech.”

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On Friday, Gavankar had described the shirts the same way, as a celebration of free speech. She was not available for comment Saturday.

“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 at the time.

The Newseum’s mission statement proclaims that it is devoted to a free press, and the point is hammered home on the building’s exterior, where the First Amendment is inscribed on a 74-foot-tall stretch of marble. So some visitors and supporters — not to mention practitioners of journalism who spoke up on Twitter — were surprised to find the shirt for sale there.

“I think it’s obviously intended as a joke,” Robert MacNeil, an author and a Newseum trustee emeritus, said Friday. “I don’t think it’s a great joke.”

Scott Williams, the president and chief executive of the museum, said the sales of the Trump-related items did 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 Ithink 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.”

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Mr. Williams said Friday that the message behind the “Fake News” shirt was not quite as direct as some critics suggested.

“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.”

Late Saturday afternoon, the shirt was still visible on the Newseum website, but it was not possible to purchase it.

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