RTDNA’s action against threatening t-shirt sparks First Amendment debate

December 6, 2017 11:00

Last week, when I noticed that Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, was selling on its website a t-shirt that read, “Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED,” I immediately sent a letter to the company’s top executives requesting it be removed.
They, thankfully, complied, as did the third-party vendor that was also offering the shirts on its own website. The next day, however, the t-shirts, and other apparel bearing the slogan, suddenly appeared on Amazon.com. I wrote a letter to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos – who also happens to own the Washington Post, which employs hundreds of journalists – and within a few hours, Amazon had removed the products from its website.
Then, the next day, the shirts showed up on eBay.com. The seller who was offering them on eBay’s e-commerce platform labeled them “Lynch Shirts” and boasted, “Banned from Walmart so we made some replicas!” I wrote a letter to eBay’s CEO, and the shirts were removed from the site in short order. At least one other press freedom group, the New York Press Club, had also complained to eBay.
RTDNA did not make these requests of Walmart, Amazon and eBay lightly. We are, as I explained to the companies’ executives, a “fierce proponent of the First Amendment that is politically nonpartisan. [W]e recognize Walmart’s right to sell the T-Shirts, and the right of consumers to purchase and wear them.” However, I continued, just because someone has a right to do something, “that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”
There’s no question in my mind that shirts or any other items containing words that openly advocate violence against anyone are unacceptable. Period. Interchange the word “journalist” with any other noun – “woman,” say, or “teacher” – and there would be universal outrage. Why, then, would anyone think it was acceptable to glorify the lynching of journalists?
I quickly found out.
While we were thanked profusely by many journalists and compatriot press freedom organizations, and while the public feedback to our actions was overwhelmingly positive, it was by no means all positive. Here are just a few of the critical tweets we got:
Then there were the emails. Here’s a representative sample:

I don’t share these hateful messages to whine or cry or act like a “special snowflake,” as one of my new Twitter fans described me. Nor do I imply that RTDNA is the lone recipient of this special variety of trolling.
If you work in a newsroom, you probably on a regular basis get phone calls, or emails, or tweets, or messages in your website’s comments section or on your Facebook page, spewing venom similar to the examples I shared here. Some of you have no doubt been trolled by bots, which can quickly send thousands of vile messages at a time. (It’s possible we were the victim of bots, but I don’t think so.)
And, as NBC News correspondent Katy Tur wrote this year in her bestseller Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, threats to reporters and photographers covering the 2016 presidential election campaign were so severe that some national news organizations began providing their journalists with armed security guards at certain events. A few still do.
Rather, I impart this feedback to demonstrate further how vitriolic the distrust of the news media has become in today’s divisive political and ideological climate. When you read the rancor spewed on RTDNA’s Twitter feed, or in our email inbox, you realize it’s a miracle that, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, only about three dozen journalists have been physically assaulted in America so far this year.
Judging by the tone and content of some of the negative feedback we received, regaining trust of the news media will never happen for a small part of American society that believes it’s OK to wear a t-shirt promoting the lynching of journalists.
But I am optimistic that there remain opportunities to rebuild trust with most of the people who don’t like the news media, or say they don’t like us because they don’t understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives.
It will be difficult. It will take time. But a great way to start, if you’re not doing so already, is by employing two guiding principles – transparency and accountability.
Do you go to significant lengths not only to report the news but to explain to your viewers or listeners or readers why and how you cover the stories you report? Do you seek every opportunity – on the air, online, in public appearances and in conversations with societal influencers in your community – to explain your newsgathering philosophy and talk about how you address the ethical dilemmas you face virtually every single day?
That’s transparency. As for accountability, when responsible journalists make mistakes, as all humans do, they immediately correct them and are then held accountable for their errors. It’s more complicated than that, of course, as we wrote last month. But it can and must be done. Consider applying to participate in the Trusting News project, a partner of RTDNA’s.
We live in a time in which the term “fake news” has been weaponized in an attempt to sterilize – no, destroy – the virility of one of the Founding Fathers’ highest aspirations for our nation, that it always have a free press. Many of the men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to write our Constitution detested the news media of their day, but they recognized that the fledgling republic they were codifying would not survive without it.
As he emerged from that Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what form of government the United States was going to have.
His reply: “A republic, if you can keep it.”


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