The Newseum

NY Times Newseum

NY Times photo

This place is awesome! If you have a chance, go to the Newseum.

After speaking at the Community Indicators conference, I went to the Newseum, the recently-opened museum for news located next to the US Capitol building. I intended to stay for about an hour and ended up staying for over three. The Newseum is a fascinating and engaging experience which I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in current events and news.

As best I can tell, the Newseum is a non-profit organization founded by the major news organizations, including:

The New York Times – Ochs-Sulzberger Family
The Annenberg Foundation
ABC News
Hearst Corporation
The Hank Greenspun Family
Robert H. and Clarice Smith
Pulliam Family
News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch)
Cox Enterprises
John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Time Warner
NBC News

The format of the museum is wide-open and airy, with what seemed like a couple dozen different mini-theaters and screens where you could watch video of pivotal moments and concepts of news history.

On my way into the Newseum, I got a whiff of the visual and current nature of what was in store because there must have been at least 30 different front pages on display outside the museum. I stopped in front of the San Francisco Chronicle and was thinking about the talk I had just given, in which I displayed the front page of The New York Times to make the point that while The Times has terrific articles, it just does not convey what is happening in the world in a way that is purposeful and consistent, ie newspapers do not communicate in the way that businesses get their information. Newspapers are not data driven. They don’t communicate to you like you are an owner of the enterprise which is your world. They rarely tell you about trends or data and, when they do, they don’t make the data accessible at a later date so that you can revisit the story and see how things have progressed.

The first video put tears into my eyes. News is war; news is peace. News is love; news is hate. News is life; news is death. Incredible quotes, incredible images. The First Amendment and now I am trying to remember my history classes, but they spelled it (“46 words” as they referred to it) out for me:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peacably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

I also salute the director of the museum for personally welcoming guests and giving a brief explanation of what was to come.

From this video, I went the Berlin wall exhibit, thinking I would move past it in a couple minutes. I watched the first video of the period when the wall actually came down and again found myself being moved to tears. The human drive to survive, to seek freedom, the happiness of finding that freedom. Reagan saying, “tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev,” what a courageous act. It may have been the ultimate staged event, Reagan speaking directly in front of the wall, but it really had an impact, even though it took two years after he spoke for the wall to come down. Images of people dancing on the top of the wall, people chipping away at the wall. I remembered the incredible film, “The Lives of Others,” which so powerfully depicted the lives of East Germans prior to the wall coming down.

Amazing how wise politicians get in front of issues in which they and their constituents believe.

I went to the second video of the Berlin wall exhibit, watched the period from the 60’s to the 80’s, including the construction of the wall.

The uprising in the mid 1950’s, when the East Berliners were rioting in the streets. For a few hours on one day, the citizens were in control. And they got their news about what was happening from the West. But the riots were quelled and suppresion continued.

Takeaway: Suppression cannot be maintained. Freedom of speech is related to acknowledgment of reality. Those who suppress free speech are suppressing a shared human view of reality. They are forcing their reality on others and no one wants to have a reality forced on them.

People escaping and making it to freedom. The young man who was shot and bled to death right at the edge of the border. The Americans chose not to rescue this person over concerns about an escalation with the Russians.

Watched Kennedy speak to the West Berliners and say that there was no prouder thing for a free person to say than “Ich Bien Ein Berliner.” Another great politician getting in front (literally) of an issue in which he and his constituents believe.

Then I went to the first video of the Berlin wall exhibit and watched the period from immediately after the War until just prior to the construction. The tunnels people constructed to get to freedom. The radio broadcast from RAIS (Radio America) to the people in East Berlin. These broadcasts really had an impact on the East Berliners. It was said the the East Germans were communists by day and free citizens by night, because at night they all listened to American radio, which gave them hope of what the world could be like.

I couldn’t (and still can’t) stop thinking about how people are impacted by other people. East Germans were impacted (and given hope) by the radio broadcasts. Broadcasters view their role as informing people about reality. In the instance of the radio broadcasts across the border, it was a bit more than informing, it was a bit inciteful and broadcasters/newsepeople would acknowledge that their role is NOT to incite others but to report on what’s so. Nevertheless, I think broadcasters would also say that if putting the light of reality to something (ie reporting without bias or intent to incite) causes people to act, they have fulfilled their professional responsibility.

I took the elevator to the 6th floor, passing the radio tower from one of the World Trade Centers, knowing but not excited that I was going to need to relive that experience.

On the 6th floor, I got to walk outside and look at the capital and several other buildings, to see the grand context of history in which this museum sits. There was a small exhibit about news from centuries ago, including the bible and a wonderful black wall with pairs of white words on each black panel, like war|peace, love|hate, birth|death, crime|punishment…also made me think about journalists always seem to want to discuss and report on two sides to every issue. (There was a discussion later about why journalists always seem to be liberal.)

Descending to the 5th floor, an hour into my visit, I realized that I was not going to be finished for multiple hours.

I watched a wonderful video about the 1st amendment, George Washington, the federalists, Benjamin Bache (grandson of Ben Franklin) and the nastiness of the press in those early times. The sedition act and the repeal of the sedition act, Thomas Jefferson being elected in what was called “the revolution of 1800.” I normally don’t like historical re-enactments, with charactor actors telling their characters’ views, but I found myself buying into the delivery vehicle. I started to realize how old freedom was, how fragile it remains, how wise the founding fathers were. I got a bit irritated to think about the “patriot” act and what infringements on the First Amendment have been inflicted by this law.

Videos about Bias, Mistakes, Satire, Sources

Sources: keeping sources anonymous leads to more interesting stories, but risks printing non-factual information; not having any anonymous sources leads to less stories.

Mistakes: they get made; when Reagan was shot, one newscaster first reported that he had NOT been shot; when a group of miners were trapped, a series of TV stations reported that they had been saved, leading to jubiliation amonst the families of the miners, only to have that information re-canted three hours later, leading to deep sorrow amongst the families.

Bias: It exists and reporters ARE typically liberal.

Videos about Hollywood, Newsreels. Newsreels were a business line that died a long death.

All of these videos were amazing and I was sad to learn that they were not yet for sale at the Newseum store.

The 5th Floor was the heart of the Newseum, it seemed to me. Covers of Magazines. Biographies of Journalists.

Walked down to 4th floor and immediately find a display of car destroyed by a bomb under the driver’s seat. It’s really sinking in, the price that people have paid to bring the truth to light.

There’s a lot more to the Newseum and I will go back next time I’m in DC.

At the same time, I think the most profound moment for me in the Newseum was the following:

Stephen Colbert, in a video shown on the 5th floor, put the museum in what I view as the proper perspective.  According to The Talk Radio News Service,

Stephen Colbert from the Colbert Report created an opening video for the ceremony, where he suggested a name change to “Newsoleum,” since he said museums were only for things that no one uses anymore. Overby [The Newseum Executive Director] commented on Colbert’s video at the end by saying “it’s a little scary that’s where people are getting their news from.”

The future is coming fast and it doesn’t look anything like the past.


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