Shirt Happens

On 20 January 2009, the United States and the world tuned in to see the inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s 44th president. It was a festive event, overflowing with enthusiasm and optimism, every bit as “historic” as the pundits repeatedly emphasized.

Like many, I followed the events online, with my browser tuned to As I checked in at various times during the day, I was confused by a series of small t-shirt shaped icons at the end of the headline links:

I clicked the icon and found myself on the CNN Shirt page. Up to that moment, I was not aware that the global news giant had a shirt division. They seemed ready for my confusion, with a FAQ page explaining that since April 2008, CNN has been selling apparel featuring one or another of the headlines that have scrolled across their web page, commemorated on a tee shirt with the phrase “I just saw it on” and the date and time of the headline’s appearance.

On inauguration day, you could select the inauguration headline that best captured the moment for you and sport it proudly for a mere $15. As CNN states, “With CNN Shirts you can wear the news.” (Of course, it ceases to be news even before your credit card is processed, but I won’t fault them on semantics.)

From a marketing standpoint, the plan has promise: An event of this magnitude draws an enormous web audience, allowing CNN to capitalize on their captive viewers. Why should vendors hawking cheaply made poly-blend tees from flimsy card tables across Washington, DC be the only entrepreneurs to profit from the euphoria that accompanied President Obama’s inauguration?

Of course, from a journalism standpoint, it begs the obvious question: Are CNN journalists writing news headlines, or t-shirt slogans?

News as entertainment isn’t a sin. Entertainment Tonight has made a cottage industry of converting the irrelevant into the urgent, all without claiming that up-to-the-minute reports on Britney Spears’ battle with a muffin top are contributing to the American electorate’s voting IQ. But CNN seems intent on eating their proverbial cake and having it, too: On one hand, they boast of having “the best political team on television”; on the other, they’re using their so-called news as a testing ground for divining successful t-shirt slogans.

The juxtaposition of news and entertainment reminds me of John Stewart’s October 2004 appearance as a guest on CNN’s Crossfire: Hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala argued that Stewart’s The Daily Show isn’t any more insightful than their show, eliciting the response, “You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.”

Hard-hitting investigative journalism isn’t revealed in a story’s headline. News headlines are no different than advertising headlines: designed to draw the viewer’s attention so that they might read the rest of the story. The window of opportunity for each reader is short, so those four to seven words have to reach out and grab the reader emotionally and draw them in to the subject.

But when each headline is tracked in t-shirt sales, it seems inevitable that CNN will get chocolate in their proverbial peanut butter. (Of course, this presumes that CNNs headlines could be compromised, and anyone who visits their web site knows that their headlines are already a baffling stew of National Review meets National Enquirer. Click here to enjoy a viewer’s selection of their favorite web headlines from 2007 and 2008.)

Let’s examine a few of the headlines commemorating the inauguration and look for evidence that the mercenary folks in the silk screening department are beginning to influence news policy. While there are no overt attempts to capitalize on historically popular tee slogans (I admit, I was eagerly awaiting “Barack: Don’t worry, be happy” or “Barack says Relax”), they run the gamut from inspirational to inexplicable:

“Obama raises his hand, lifts nation”

Blurring the line between news and hyperbole, this reads like more like a line from a grandiloquent poem commemorating the event than a news story documenting the event. A great souvenir, but is it news?

“Biden takes vice presidential oath”

I know, Dick Cheney reinvigorated the powers of the VP, but is anyone outside the Biden family going to buy this shirt? I don’t recall hearing one celebrant on the mall referring to “the historic election of America’s 47th Caucasian VP.”

“Dear Mr. President: Kids advise Obama”

Blurring the line between news and Nickelodeon, this sounds like the headline for one of those too-widely-distributed emails that feature cute things kids say. I’d rather have the Biden shirt.

“Lovey-dovey first couple melts hearts”

What kind of news organization uses “lovey-dovey” to describe anything? I like to imagine this line being uttered by Edward R. Murrow. Though frankly, it’s hard to imagine.

“Obama juggles inaugural balls”

This one blurs the line between the news and Beavis and Butthead — a line that a news agency should clearly not breach.

“First couple boogies; second couple sways”

Is this some sort of veiled commentary on white folks’ dance skills? I can think of no reason this would be mistaken as a “news” item.

Perhaps my concern for CNN’s journalistic integrity being compromised by sloganeering is misplaced: many of these are terrible headlines and terrible tee slogans. Judging by these options, I think I’ll start turning to Entertainment Tonight for my hard-hitting journalism. Though I know what Entertainment Tonight’s t-shirt headline would say: “Obama inaugurated; Blair Underwood eyes biopic role.”