Two wrongs do not make a ‘right’ — but they can misuse one

"Rope Tree Journalist" T-shirt

Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters

Didn’t we all learn, long ago, that “two wrongs don’t make a right”?

But two wrongs can misuse a right — as in our right to free expression, guaranteed by the First Amendment.

First, there’s the wrong done by “Project Veritas,” a gaggle of self-proclaimed operatives on a purported mission to root out corruption and dishonesty in the media. The group uses deceitful tactics to wrong-foot reporters.

Most recently, Project Veritas attempted to plant a fake story in The Washington Post, hiring a woman to make false claims that she was made pregnant by Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore. The Post’s thorough reporting exposed deep flaws in the woman’s story and uncovered her tie to Project Veritas. In a story published on Nov. 29, the Post also detailed attempts by the woman and her colleagues to infiltrate social meetings and professional events for journalists.

Checking on the accuracy and credibility of news stories is one thing, and is even advisable in an era when anyone can claim to be a journalist. But repeated attempts to play “trick and trap” with reporters proves nothing more than that they are, at times, as vulnerable to con artists as anyone.

The other “wrong” was made right by Walmart on Dec. 1, after the company took down a T-shirt that was for sale on Walmart.com, which read “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” Walmart says it took down the shirt within hours after receiving a complaint from the Radio Television Digital News Association. But a third party was able put it up for sale in the first place. While the words printed on the shirt are protected by the First Amendment, they’re still shameful.

NPR reported that “the shirt first gained attention a year ago, when a Reuters photographer snapped an image of a man wearing it at a gathering of Trump supporters two days before the November presidential election.”

I’m sure some smug, smarmy types will find the “humor” worthy of a smirk, if not a smile — and I won’t hold my breath waiting for the outrage that erupted months ago when comedian Kathy Griffin held up a fake severed head of President Trump as part of an online spoof.

As RTDNA’s Executive Director Dan Shelley noted in his email to Walmart, “nearly three dozen journalists have been physically assaulted so far this year across the country merely for performing their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth.” He said the T-shirt and similar items may well “inflame the passions of those who either don’t like, or don’t understand, the news media. At worst, they openly encourage violence targeting journalists.”

My colleagues at the Newseum tweeted their response to this stupid attempt at satire: “Hey @Walmart, we can think of 2,305 reasons why this shirt is offensive. #JournalistsMemorial #PressFreedom.”

The Newseum’s Journalists Memorial contains the names of 2,305 journalists who died in pursuit of the news. The memorial is rededicated each year – next year’s ceremony will be on June 4, 2018.

Those of us involved in that event will be joined once again by the family and friends of men and women who were killed by despots, drug lords, corrupt government officials and others, for gathering and reporting the news, in the United States and around the world.

We’ll once again experience the anguish and see the tears of spouses and colleagues in mourning for those who made the ultimate sacrifice to speak truth to power, and to bring facts and truth to a world sorely in need of both.

So, to the clown who designed and promoted the “Some Assembly Required” T-shirt, we extend an invitation: Show up on June 4 and explain why you thought your shirt slogan was funny.

We’ll save a chair for you.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

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