Consider the source

"Consider the source" Continued...

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

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.

Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.


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