I had the good luck to be visiting friends in Washington DC who told me about the grand opening of the Newseum – a major new museum celebrating modern journalism on Pennsylvania Avenue right across from the National Gallery. Admission was free on opening day so off we all went, but public response was so strong that the Newseum had stopped letting people in by mid afternoon. They were, however, giving out free tickets for the next day which are normally $20 each and we got enough for everyone. We were back by ten the next morning to take full advantage.
My friend Charles (with hat) and myself in front of the Newseum. There is no doubt about its leading theme – that’s the First Amendment writ six stories high at the left. (Photos by Charles’ wife Joy)
My main interest in the Newseum was to see to how they had dealt with the impact of the Interenet on journalism. The short answer is that they either didn’t or only very superficially. Mostly I was stuck by the attitude of self congratulation that permiated the exhibits. To paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense the Newseum is trying to cope wtha 21th century media environment by lionizing journalism’s 20th century achievements. The first critical review of Newseum I found was The News Mausoleum by John Podhoretz. He reacts in much the same way:
This half-billion-dollar enterprise is not really a tribute to an important idea or a celebration of a basic human freedom. It is, rather, the news industry’s tribute to itself.
Historically speaking, this attitude is of relatively recent vintage. It may, in fact, be an artifact of the rise of the same highly profitable monopoly newspapers and shared-monopoly television networks that were so profitable and consequently grew so powerful that they gave the members of their news force reason to believe they were not just working stiffs—the general attitude of newspapermen throughout most of the preceding era—but akin to a democratic nobility.
I can’t take you to the Newseum to see if you see this attitude too, but I can take you to the Newseum Website where their press page is filled with universally laudatory quotes from, you guessed it, journalists. This one catches what I think the Newsuem would like its visitors to feel:
“If you can leave the Newseum without a sense of respect and gratitude for the principles undergirding the news business, you’re more jaded than I.” — Helen Lounsbury, Bay City (Mich.)Times
And this comment deals with the public’s negative view of journalism the same way I felt the exhibits at the Newseum do – acknowledging the negative only to push it quickly aside.
“At a time when journalists are reeling from scathing rebukes and public skepticism about their profession, the gleaming Newseum is poised to become a welcome reminder of all that’s good about the business.” — Jessica Meyers, American Journalism Review
The immodesty of this idea led many newspaper professionals of the late 20th century into a category error. They came to confuse the significance of the subjects they were covering with the act of covering them. Proximity to the news made them a species of news. They wrote about government; therefore, they were equivalent to the government in importance. They reported a war, and their act of reporting a war came to loom as large as the war itself. Today, the death of a journalist in a war zone is assigned vastly more weight than the death of a soldier.
Edward, Charles and Joy’s son, views a memorial to fallen journalists that includes a truck spattered with bullet holes
This error is very much in evidence in the Newseum. Its grandest displays are giant artifacts. On the third floor, there is an East German guard tower attached to a slab of the Berlin Wall; on the first floor, there is a huge twisted piece of metal that was the World Trade Center’s broadcast antenna. These are remarkable to behold and to contemplate, and they encourage one to reflect deeply on totalitarianism, Islamofascism, and terrorism. But what is important about them, what is thought-provoking about them, has absolutely nothing to do with journalism or with journalists; it has to do with actuality. If anything, the unearned grandiosity at work in the news business is one of the key elements behind the deep and abiding disdain that the American people have come to harbor for it.
A graffiti covered section of the Berlin Wall with Edward and daughter Christine
The broadcast tower from the World Trade Center
Podhoretz’s assertion that the Newseum and journalism itself commits a category error by mixing actuality with reporting strikes a deeper chord with me. It is eerily familiar because it is the central error we all make- journalists and audience alike – with TV. In the older, verbally dominated media – newspapers and radio – the reality being reported on has a separate existence from the act of reporting. With television reporting, the pictures take the place of actuality. Actuality is reduced to what the cameraman frames and the film editor chooses to include. The words no longer carry the main message about an independent reality outside the control of the reporter; they merely support what we see on the screen. We get a complete media package – a closed world – from which actuality has been partly or even entirely excluded. No wonder the media has an inflated view of itself – they have become gods. They don’t just report reality – they create it.
An actual statue of Lenin set against a photograph of same – reinforcing the equivalence of photography (still in this case) and actuality. Those familiar youngsters are real too of course. Trust me.
To its credit the Newseum does address the issue of popular distrust of the media with an exhibit and a five minute movie that at least acknowledges honestly that the media are in serious trouble with their audience. The issue is portrayed as a small, but important problem, in an overwhelmingly, successful enterprise. The problem is reduced to being a case of the occasional bad apple like Jason Blair who simply made stuff up, was caught and duly fired. No mention is made of the power of the Internet to out baloney like the presentation of word processed documents in 2004 as originals from the seventies known as Rathergate or the ongoing al Durah affair in France involving the outtakes of a France2 report that cast doubt on the ‘actuality’ of the death of a young Palestinian that helped spark the Intifada in 2001. In the five minute Newseum film, news anchors from Fox to PBS discuss the issue of public doubt seriously with their usual, above it all, aplomb. The result is superficial because the Newseum treatment doesn’t engage the structural changes brought about by the Internet that have significantly altered the power relationships of the news business. Today anyone with a computer can challenge the veracity of the media gods and create a firestorm of criticism that further undermines their credibility. Some of this material on the Internet is highly credible. Some of it dubious and openly agenda driven. It is messy but it isn’t going away and the media will not regain control over their own public image any time soon.
Finally, when it comes to directly addressing how the Internet is changing the rules of of journalism the Newseum minimizes the issue by including small references to bloggers and news aggregator Matt Drudge as if they were curiosities. More tellingly an exhibit on the Virginia Tech shootings, when CNN used cellphone footage from a student witness, presents the use of such a novel source of material as if the established media were still the only outlet for such footage and journalists the only people competent to authenticate it. There is no hint of the obvious – that the student could have put the footage up on his own blog or chosen WikiNews as his outlet subject to authentication by other bloggers and even the established media. They get to participate too. Given my Netcentric prejudices I am not too unhappy because at least the Internet has a toehold at the Newseum. There is nothing to prevent the Newseum from creating exhibits in the future adding to our understanding of Internet journalism as its impact becomes impossible to marginalize.