An Eerie Temple of Yesterday's News
As far as dedicating a museum to a milieu I know well—one routinely accused of smugness, elitism, undue self-importance, and being thin-skinned—well, I might have preferred something modest in someone's basement commemorating the indie-rock underground of the '80s and '90s.
Quite reasonably, though, no one asked me.
And now there's an impressive edifice looming over a prime section of Washington's iconic Pennsylvania Avenue—a straight shot from the Capitol building—called the Newseum, which officially opened on Apr. 11. The Newseum, created and funded in part by the Freedom Forum, the foundation run by USA Today impresario Al Neuharth, is a major reboot of a smaller version formerly located in Rosslyn, Va. You may have guessed what its 250,000 square feet are devoted to: journalism, and to an extent, the businesses that have fed off it, their artifacts captured under glass, sometimes in temperature- and light-controlled environments, like something fragile or suffering from a dread disease.
The Newseum cannot help but evoke such metaphors. It is a striking-looking place, modern and glassy, with lots of space. It's stuffed with enough effluvia to keep a media geek happy for weeks. (I write this as someone sufficiently interested in Rupert Murdoch's phone from around 2005—yes, it's on display—to blog about who he had on speed dial. Wait—what is Murdoch's phone from 2005 doing in a museum?)
But the Newseum shows-and-tells at a time when media types should be doing more listening than lecturing.There are nods to the next generation of news—the one defined by blogging, by people doing journalism independently, outside of established media outlets. But it's telling that the museum's exhibit on Web news mores is stuffed into a low-ceilinged afterthought of an alcove. It also costs $20 to get into the Newseum, which feels very strange in a city stuffed with fabulous free museums and at a time when major journalism entities struggle to maintain their paid physical-product businesses amid the infinite free offerings on the Web.
It kills me a little to write this. The news business doesn't need anything else dumped on it, and the people at the museum were kind enough to allow me to swoop in for a pre-opening visit. But I can't help it. Almost everything about the Newseum is weird. The timing of its appearance suggests a kind of tone-deafness, since it arrives well into an era in which armies of annotators regularly and publicly attack the work and motives of those bringing them the news of the day. (They're not always wrong, either.)
Its placement on such an august stretch of D.C. real estate implicitly puts the news biz in league with the powers it's supposed to remain skeptical of, though anyone who has suffered through government-journalist group gropes such as the White House Correspondents' Dinner knows how uncomfortably close those teams are in real life. The Newseum is a $450 million monument to what at heart is a simple, modestly paid profession. And as others have observed, it's problematic when you erect elaborate monuments to yourself in the first place.
There is, naturally, some pretty wild stuff to see. The Newseum found, in an impound lot, the white Toyota (TM) in which Arizona journalist Don Bolles was blown up back in 1976 by someone trying to stop a story with a car bomb. And irony-spotters will have a field day. Those who reflexively blame Murdoch for coarsening the media environment may have aneurysms when they see the News Corp. (NWS)-sponsored News History Gallery, the building's largest. They may be mollified, though, by a display tut-tutting "sensationalism" in that very wing, featuring a quote from Jerry Seinfeld (?!) on the unreliability of tabloids.
I enjoyed that gallery enormously. Among many other things, it shows off trading cards from the 1890s that illustrate, believe it or not, some of the top editors of the day. These folks, according to the display, enjoyed fame akin to news anchors of today. But then the Newseum is designed for an era when news anchors and their ilk had a central status in public discourse, not a shrinking one. It was built for yesterday, not today—and definitely not tomorrow.