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Stop the Presses! The Newseum is Here!

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You can see the leather bomber jacket that Ernest Hemingway wore when he was a war correspondent.  

Richard Harding Davis, or his ghost, has thoughtfully provided his monogrammed cigar case and lighter from the Boer War, just before he was almost killed when he joined Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders for that charge up San Juan Hill (it was actually Kettle Hill, but who’s quibbling?). He used to live on South 21st Street in Philadelphia.

Edward R. Morrow’s broadcast artifacts from the London Blitz are mounted with the reverence of a Vatican exhibit.

The eerie remnants of the Oklahoma City bombing seem as recent and as chilling as the initial television breaking news bulletin that alerted us to what was happening.

The Unabomber’s half dog house, half shack has been brought there, plank-by-plank.

A short film recalling the horror of 9/11 and the Twin Towers is perpetually standing room only. I passed on that. Who needs any reminders?

 

Totems and Scriptures

It’s all there – the totems and icons and scared scriptures of the craft of reporting and presenting the news.

Washington, D.C.’s latest major museum attraction, the Newseum, at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, at Sixth Street, right in the granite heart of museum row, with a killer view of Capitol Hill from the stunning roof-level terrace, does not disappoint.

That’s what you can expect when 14 of the richest corporations and families in the American news and broadcast business pool their money, resources and enthusiasm to create a state-of-the-art homage to the way they make their living.

Local representation includes Comcast ($5 million) and the late, lamented John S and James L Knight Foundation ($25 million), the philanthropic arm of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain that used to own and operate the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News back in the Gene Roberts and a Pulitzer Prize-every-year era. How quickly we forget.

 

The important numbers on the Newseum include:

  • a $450 million price tag
  • 1000 old and rare newspaper front pages
  • 130 inter-active exhibits
  • 15 comfortable theaters
  • two television studios
  • 14 galleries of some type
  • seven atrium levels
  • one suspended-in-air news helicopter
  • 250,000 square feet of usable space
  • one dual level Wolfgang Puck restaurant
  • one food court (really, really pricey)  
  • one enormous chunk of the Berlin Wall, complete with watchtower and searchlight and graffiti-scrawled slabs

 

From Whence It Came

This present incarnation of the Newseum opened in February 2008, to sort of limited fanfare. The primary revolving exhibit is all about G-Men and The News, with the emphasis on J.Edgar Hoover, old-time gangsters like Machine Gun Kelly and the exploits of those hat-wearing “government men.”

That will change, of course, depending on trends and availability of materials. Much of what’s there seems to have been loaned out by the museum at the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), across town. It’s great stuff, lavishly mounted, but “inter-active” exhibits always seem to me to lose something important in the translation. Visitors just have to deal with that at the Newseum.

 

The original Newseum opened in 1997 in Arlington, Virginia. Back in those days it was free to the public, reasonably well-attended and definitely off-the-beaten track. One of the involved journalists who was put off by that location and by the apparently modest ambitions of the place was the late Tim Russert. He was among the journalistic movers-and-shakers who pushed for a downtown location.  

As always, be careful what you wish for. The old Newseum had a friendly, cozy scale to it. The new one, in contrast, is all about steel-and-glass “windows-on-the-world” design and new wave architects making statements. If you happen to visit during a sunny day and find yourself anywhere near that seven story atrium, better keep your sunglasses on.

Just to prove that the sensibility of journalists never really takes a holiday, several of the publications of contributing organizations have written reviews sounding attacking these architectural and design shortcomings.

 

In place of a conventional mission statement, the Newseum lists a collection of “core beliefs” that come down heavily, as expected, on the importance of protecting and expanding the guarantees of the First Amendment and on the irresistible connection between daily journalism and the “first rough draft of history.”   

There is nothing particularly edgy in the Newseum, but just about any writer or reporter would acknowledge that the institution has its heart in the right place.

 

Film at 11

via Flickr | by wfyurasko

Much of what you can absorb and learn at the Newseum comes by way of film or video. In fact, there seems to be an almost equal weight assigned to daily newspaper reporting and to 24/7/365 broadcast news. With benefactors like Fox’s News Corporation, Cox Broadcasting, NBC, ABC and Bloomberg, it’s not hard to see why.

What does seem to be a glaring oversight, however, is the near total absence of anything of size or value about the role of the American magazine. With two magazine heavyweights like Hearst and Time Warner also counted among the generous contributors, it is difficult to see what, if anything, they got for their money. Even with the Newseum, there is still a definite need for a great American magazine museum.    

 

What we used to call “newsreels” march visitors through the 20th century, with not all that much available on the 21st century so far. You get all the Vietnam and Civil Rights Movement you could wish for. Walter Cronkite is his reassuring eternal self as he intones the grandeur and relevance of the Race to the Moon. President Lyndon B. Johnson appears to die before our eyes as he surrenders to stress and cancer and the tool that Vietnam takes on him and his country.   

Great as these history lessons are, though, there is something distinctly melancholy and troublingly distant about them, including Vietnam. It all seems so tame now, so manageable now, almost quaint, as we compare those dangerous, but far simpler times, with the contemporary horror of Iraq, Afghanistan and a disintegrating economy. No doubt journalists of the distant future will feel exactly the same way about the problems and tribulations that seem so urgent to us now.

 

If there is one place where the Newseum scores a hands-down knockout is has to be in the category of original film. They’ve utilized a process called “4-D” to provide a sweeping overview of journalism history from the American Revolution through mid-20th century. This kind of special-effects film-making, complete with “4-D glasses” is far better than the best Imax movie you have ever seen. The only problem is that the Newseum doesn’t offer visitors nearly enough of this “4-D” wonderland.  

 

The Newseum is located at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, at Sixth Street, Washington, D.C., Northwest.

Tickets range from $20 for adults, $18 for students, seniors and military people, $13 for young people from 7 to 18 years of age, to free admission for little kids.

Group rates and memberships options are available. Please call 888-639-7386 for further information. The Newseum is open from 9am to 5 pm during the week, with Saturday hours.

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