“The First Rough Draft of History”

The brand new Newseum, recently opened on Pennsylvania Avenue just blocks from the nation’s Capitol building, offers a soaring celebration of the role of journalism in documenting history as it happens, in providing that “first rough draft of history” described by Philip Graham. The building’s six-story atrium and towering walls of screens offered a welcome entrance to the museum, and the collections and exhibits provide a useful balance between the significant historical events covered by journalists and the technologies and institutions that have shaped journalism–and history itself–over the years. But like Howard Kurtz, I felt in places that the Newseum risked offering a history of print and TV journalism that was too celebratory, and in places, the museum seemed to underplay some of the real threats to print journalism as it is currently practiced.

There are, of course, some indispensable artifacts from the history of journalism: original copies of historic newspapers, including those published by U.S. pioneers Ben Franklin and John Peter Zenger, who took enormous risks in criticizing the British government. There are also copies of Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper, as well as newspapers featuring headlines from any number of important historic events. These newspapers are valuable for visually conveying the ways in which the look of newspapers themselves have changed. Other artifacts help to ground the history of journalism even further. The door discovered by the Watergate security guard that led to the investigation of the break-in is there, as is a large chunk of the Berlin Wall and one of the mangled antennae from the World Trade Center. Both of these objects are contextualized nicely with features such as reprints of newspaper headlines from around the globe and documentaries about reporters–both national and local–who sought to make sense of what was happening.

But as a media historian, I was taken more by things such as old telegraph machines and the old intercom CNN used to broadcast from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War (depicted in the underrated HBO film, Live from Baghdad), as well as one of the earliest TV broadcasts reporting on the existence of the Internet from back in 1975, which characterized the technology almost entirely as fostering a destruction of personal privacy. And the Newseum has some other quirky touches as well, including a replica of Stephen Colbert’s “On Notice” board and “Truthiness” script. In that sense, there is a lot of cool stuff here, enough to keep me engaged for several hours and still feel like I hadn’t exhausted the entire museum, which is probably a good thing, given their somewhat steep $20 admission price.

The scope of the museum is, itself, a little overwhelming.  With all of the banks of TV sets and giant screens, I often felt as if I was walking around inside of a Nam June Paik sculpture, and the giant 93-foot screen sometimes risked turning the news or history itself into a giant music video.  The interactive elements are interesting and amusing enough, although I found their pedagogical role problematic in places.  A display describing the relative “media freedom” in various countries was incredibly informative.  The “media ethics” game reduces most ethical questions to either-or choices (help the starving Sudanese girl or photograph her) that may, in fact, be more complicated.  In this sense, these features may romanticize the individual journalist while ignoring the role of corporate or state support in shaping what news actually makes it onto TV or into print.  That being said, one of the screens provided space for a tribute to Tim Russert, who passed away this weekend, and the video provided a moving honor to Russert’s contagious enthusiasm for using his seat on Meet the Press to represent the “little guy” in the face of political power.

Still, I felt that the museum was not attentive enough to some of the profound ethical dilemmas facing journalism today (or, in some cases, in the distant past).  There is one glass display case documenting examples of journalistic frauds such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, as well as Judith Miller, whose reporting on WMD for the New York Times helped provide justification for the war in Iraq (interestingly, there was no mention that I noticed of the Knight-Ridder reporters who were among the most-prominent skeptics of the prewar intelligence).  In addition, while the Newseum had quite a bit of coverage of the emergence of bloggers and other grassroots journalists, including the Rathergate scandal and the amateur footage of the Virginia Tech shootings, there was little analysis of such significant changes as media consolidation or of the ways in which many newsrooms are now cutting back staffs, which seriously threatens the role of the news media in serving as a “fourth estate.”

My reservations about the Newseum might not seem entirely fair.  Rachel Sklar, for example, argues that we wouldn’t expect an art museum to include copies of forgeries, so why expect the Newseum to offer a more critical take on the history of journalism?  But I think this is a false comparison: while art museums have the responsibility of articulating a canon of great art, the Newseum is tasked with providing a historical narrative, in this case of journalism as practice and as an institution, and while I appreciate the celebrations of so many journalists who took tremendous risks to bring us the news, I would have appreciated a slightly more critical take on this history.

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