WASHINGTON, D.C.- The news industry's latest and greatest monument to itself, the Newseum, opened April 11. The six-story, $450 million project sits near the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues, with a clear sight line to the Capitol just a few blocks away. A 74-foot-high marble slab engraved with the text of the First Amendment hangs out over the sidewalk. Inside, its 14 galleries are packed with fascinating collections of text, images, videos, and artifacts.
They range from 3,000-year-old Sumerian tablets to a chunk of the communications antenna from the World Trade Center's north tower to an impressive collection of historical newspapers to 27 hours worth of short videos. These cover everything from media bias to sports coverage to New York Times news fabricator Jayson Blair to journalists murdered for their work to the techno-future of journalism, with lots of attention to the First Amendment. It is, in a word, overwhelming.
The point, though, is as clear as its glass façade, through which passers-by can see a news chopper hanging above a giant video screen in the massive atrium. "The free press is a cornerstone of democracy," says one prominent display. "People have a need to know. Journalists have a right to tell."
That's true, but visitors should also keep in mind a bit of advice offered in a video segment discussing the credibility of bloggers as compared to mainstream news outlets: "Consider the source."
As entertainment, the Newseum is worth the pricey entrance fee: $20 for adults and $13 for children, with those under 7 free. Kids will want to head immediately to the second floor's NBC News Interactive Newsroom, where they can (for an additional $8) video themselves doing a standup report in front of an image of the White House and download the clip later from newseum.org. They can also try out their reporting and photography skills on touch-screen simulations. From there, they can take the stairs to the basement for the introductory video (news is "war and peace, love and hate, life and death") and check out the full-sized watchtower from the Berlin Wall. Glass-enclosed elevators then whisk visitors up to the sixth floor where they can peruse the front pages of 80 newspapers from around the world, delivered daily. Then they will want to work their way downstairs on foot.
On the fifth floor the Pulliam Family Great Books Gallery holds copies of the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution in pamphlet form, among other documents. The News Corporation News History Gallery offers thousands of plastic-protected front pages on pull-out trays in chronological order. The array runs from 16th-century news pamphlets from Europe to the first American newspaper (the single issue of Boston's Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, 1690) to the most famous gaffe in U.S. headline history ("Dewey Defeats Truman," The Chicago Daily Tribune, 1948), and up to the present.
Nearby displays offer historical context for topics like sensationalism and media bias. The last in the row addresses "Credibility: Can the Press Be Trusted?" After conceding that the public gives journalists "middling marks at best" (a serious understatment; a Sacred Heart University poll released in January showed that 55 percent of Americans trust only "some" news reporting and a quarter said they believe none), the display asserted that most journalists strive for fairness, balance, and accuracy.
Some public distrust is the result of errors, reads the display, but the real problem is not the news media's performance but the public's perception of bias: "Because each of us 'filters' news differently, we may disagree with the way news is reported." The display concludes that "bias in some cases" is "simply in the eye of the beholder."
Visitors who see straight after that poke in the eye should head down to the Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery and 9/11 Gallery on the fourth floor. The latter is a moving memorial, highlighted by a video of journalists describing how they covered that grim day.
Photographer Tom Franklin recalls being escorted away from Ground Zero by police, and then sneaking back in to capture the iconic shot of three firemen raising an American flag atop the ruins. An outtake from a Manhattan TV station shows a choked-up reporter lowering his microphone to hug a sobbing witness as debris smolders in the background.
On the third floor are the Time Warner World News Gallery and the Internet, TV, and Radio Gallery, featuring a tribute to pioneering CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. On the west side is the Journalists Memorial. It's a high, airy, chapel-like space walled on one side by plates of frosted glass bearing the names of 1,800 journalists who have died while covering news. Hillary Clinton provided the defining quote: "The men and women of this memorial are truly democracy's heroes."
Most obviously risked their lives for freedom. Alfredo Abad Lopez, a Colombian radio journalist, in 2000 died in a hail of pistol fire while investigating the murder of a fellow journalist. But others are not so clear. James Cox, a photographer, perished in 2007 when his chopper collided with another of the five news helicopters following a Phoenix police chase. Four died, and it's not clear how those tragic deaths advanced democracy.
Other highlights include a 3-D historical video that recreates Nelly Bly's famous undercover reporting in an 1880s insane asylum and the collection of Pulitzer Prize--winning photographs (some material may not be suitable for children).
The Newseum even occasionally, but gently, mocks the industry, with blooper headlines etched on bathroom tiles ("Man Shot in Back, Head Found in Street") and displays featuring, for example, Comedy Central's The Colbert Report and the satirical newspaper The Onion. If that reminds you of lunch, head down to the basement where burgers are a reasonable $5 and entrees run up to $14 for a salmon plate. Tonier fare can be had at The Source, run by noted Washington chef Wolfgang Puck.
CEO Charles Overby told the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently that the Newseum is "something between the Smithsonian and Disneyland," between education and fun. But consider the source.
The new Newseum replaces a much smaller facility in nearby Rosslyn that was closed in 2001. It was founded by the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit journalism advocacy operation with $800 million in assets, according to its 2006 annual report. Fifteen major media partners ponied up between $5 million and $25 million each for their named galleries while watching their ratings, readerships, and revenues sink like the Titanic-slowly but surely. The Newseum is clearly an attempt to convince rapidly fragmenting audiences that, with a few exceptions, everything about journalism is heroic or epic or essential to democracy.
First Amendment freedoms are critical to a free society, but it seems unlikely that democracy weakens along with News Corp.'s stock price. The Newseum is following the lead of its sponsors, chasing audiences with glitz and glamor when it ought to be asking some hard questions: Do news media understand and apply First Amendment freedoms in ways that most benefit the public or their profits? Journalism is a noble enterprise, occasionally heroic but often flawed, and it's much too important not to see it clearly.