Washington Newseum stresses individual heroism, downplays economics and social context

My Parka pinched tightly, I plunged into the sleet that
battered the pavements of Washington DC in a flash storm and tread
down 6th Street. I wasn’t about to turn back now. There was no other
time for me to take the assortment of extended family members to the
the exhibit hall about journalism that has garnered so much buzz since
its recent move from humble beginnings over the horizon in Virginia to
a swank neomodern block with a balcony over looking the Capitol
building that generates so much of its subject matter.

The Newseum is an experience worth the entrance fee, and a capacious
view into the profession that it honors. The history exhibit boasts
history-making front pages throughout the life of our country, and the
First Amendment exhibit brought tears to my eyes. But a lot was
missing from the Newseum too, and I didn’t think the omissions were
just something they’ll get to later.

The focus of the museum is on the journalist as individual hero,
extending to interviews with Pulitzer-winning photographers and an
obligatory homage to Edward Morrow. Hard on the heels of the
First Amendment exhibit was a memorial to journalists who died in the
line of duty, including even an automobile destroyed by a car bomb to
underline the dangers they face.

This is all appropriate, but left nothing for the business of
journalism, which is key to understanding where it stands today. I
tried to count the references to the economics of the field and found
about enough to be covered by a two-fingered typist. A panel about
William Randolph Hearst mentioned media consolidation, with one
sentence criticizing it and another defending it. The history and
digital media exhibits mentioned the wave of recent newspaper
bankruptcies. Particular ironic was the application of the label
“Global Media Diversity” to a panel listing five of the world’s
largest organizations in an ever-consolidating industry.

It’s hard to suppress a hypothesis as to why so little is said here
about industry finances and their editorial influence: the museum was
largely funded by the very organizations that it would otherwise have
to put under its microscope. I issue a challenge, therefore, to the
Newseum: exercise the uncompromising investigatory dedication you
celebrate in your subjects, and add an exhibit about the changing
economics of journalism and the scissors crisis in which it traps its

Another understated theme in the Newseum is the effect of journalists
on events subsequent to their coverage. Repeatedly, exhibits play up
journalists’ insight and courage in responding to the urgent issues of
their times, but any influence in the other direction is only hinted
at. The clearest connection made was Nellie Bly’s ground-breaking
nineteenth-century exposé of conditions in a New York insane
asylum, an assignment that required her to be committed and live the
life of an inmate.

Although the history exhibit celebrates African-American journalism in
the last decades of slavery and during the post-war Civil Rights
movement, it does not bring home to the viewer how the relentless
parade of facts and images brought a white American public less jaded
than we are today to a conviction that it was time for change. And a
lavish Woodstock exhibit fails to point out that coverage of this
massive gathering propelled the youth counterculture into the

Finally, the museum glosses over the roles of various technologies in
changing journalism. It offers live interviews in a TV studio, but only
for the vicarious tingle it gives would-be participants. Exhibits on the
contributions of Internet technologies, typewriters, and helicopters
are skimpy.

Despite my wish that it would go farther, I highly recommend a visit to the
Newseum. It offers many issues of our day their due, such as the
journalistic rights of bloggers. On the whole, it’s the fullest survey
I’ve seen of the state of journalism in our time. If we want
journalism to continue to exist outside the museum, we can all line
up there to gain a better understanding of the field.