Disinfecting the News?

newseum2I’ve avoided visiting the Newseum in Washington, DC. for some time. I vaguely remember when it opened at its first location 21 years ago, but I was long out of the profession and hadn’t yet become an academic who dabbled in and taught journalism. So I ignored it. In the ten years since it opened in its new location on Pennsylvania Avenue, I’ve visited Washington, DC a dozen or more times. Though my interest in the field had been rekindled, never did I even consider visiting the Newseum. Until yesterday.

newseum1My bias against the Newseum was completely irrational: I didn’t like the name. It was too cutesy. And I never trusted journalism when it became too proud of itself. My feelings were confirmed last year by an article Sadie Dingfelder wrote last year for The Washington Post. Titled “Why the Newseum creeps out journalists and should bother you, too,” it confirmed all of my unexamined assumptions.

But, yesterday, I visited the Newseum anyway.

It was all the things I had dreaded it would be. Yet it is magnificent.

Yes, as Dingefelder writes, there is something antiseptic and way too corporate about it: “In many ways, the Newseum reminded me of the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, a building-shaped commercial for its namesake corporation — though a more perfect analogy would be a World of Soft Drinks erected by all of the major soda manufacturers.” Clean, it is: Even the blown-up car of assassinated journalist Don Bolles sparkles.

But none of that matters when American-based journalists are murdered by a foreign nation without any real governmental reaction, when the president trumps up charges against journalists to remove ones they don’t like from the White House press corps, when that same president directly insults journalists rather than engaging with their questions, and when “news” is constantly fake by the powers that be (caravans of dangerous “illegals,” voter fraud, false investigations: the list goes on).

newseum3One of Dingefelder’s criticism of the Newseum is that it doesn’t seem to know when journalism stops and the world begins–or vice-versa, really. Right now, there’s a mangled piece of the World Trade Center on display along with a wall full of newspaper front pages from that day and the next morning. There’s also a display of stories about president’s dogs. The latter, of course, is just fluff but, much of what news media present is fluff so such things do have a place in a museum dedicated to the news–especially in one that takes itself as seriously as this one does. But a self-congratulatory display on 9/11? I’m a Brooklynite who was just across the bridge when the planes hit. An exhibit presenting seriously the handling of the attack by the press could interest me a great deal. This, though, vergged on dishonoring the tragedy.

Behind Dingefelder’s discomfort with the Neuseum, I suspect, lies an understandable unease with a press too enamored with itself, an unease I share. Yet we have recently moved into an era where the press is seen as a problem by many, indeed, an “enemy of the people.” And that changes how a museum should present journalism.

After all, a museum can be no more impartial than a newspaper. Its biases need to be clear: the Newseum’s are.

Journalism, sometimes, needs to be celebrated, and now is one of those times. Often, there’s too little for a reporter to be proud of, for all of the hoopla that now surrounds the press. The last decades have witnessed a devolution into entertainment for much of what once passed as journalism. Yet the profession has persisted in some of its best efforts ever. The very fact that attacks on it are as virulent today as they have ever been proves that reporters, for all their diminished (and often well-deserved) reputations, continue to contribute mightily to the United States and the world.

Instead of leaving me appalled, the Neuseum more often left me close to tears. It showed me that, for all I criticize them, I still have a great deal of pride in the news media of my country.

May they last forever.


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