Newseum: Titanic to 9/11
The gala grand opening party marking the opening of the Newseum felt all too much like the last dinner on the Titanic, a whale of a bash, with food by Wolfgang Puck, snazzy new exhibits, a striking and welcoming building, and a huge cast of bigs from the news industry--partying like there 'd be no tomorrow. Which there may well not be.
The news business, the one celebrated (and questioned) by the Newseum's exhibits, videos, games and other interactive doodads, is on the rocks these days. Layoffs, buyouts, cutbacks, selloffs and, coming soon, closings are the big story in the business of reporting the stories of our times.
Alas, there is little, if any, sense of that unfolding doom in the contents of the Newseum. The museum's history of news does a perfectly fine, if somewhat muted, job of reviewing the roots and early centuries of the concept and delivery of news, and then a riveting and deeply textured job of reminding us how our information society has been transformed by waves of technological change over the past century, and especially since the start of the TV era.
But there is precious little about the essential rejection of the structures of the news business that is now proceeding as readers and viewers turn away from newspapers, radio, TV, magazines and books and toward the hopped-up torrent of information of very different sorts that cascades along the web. The Newseum embraces new technologies, often in clever and alluring ways--interactive ethics games, user-directed video samples, enough bells and whistles to make the steep $20 admission fee seem almost reasonable. Well, maybe not quite.
But a visitor does not emerge thinking, 'Ah, now I understand why the news business is in freefall,' let alone concluding that there is any clear (or even murky) path toward a new news infrastructure. (Disclosure: A couple of years ago, I served briefly as a consultant advising the Newseum on the text of its exhibit on radio history.)
Still, as much as I felt torn at Friday night's bash between the coolness of the Newseum exhibits and the sickening feeling that this could end up becoming a museum of a lost craft, I also left the building far more inspired and moved than I had expected to be.
What did it for me? Three things: An extraordinary video narrated by the reporters and photographers who covered the first minutes of the 9/11 story at the World Trade Center, a deep well of TV reporting from throughout the past half century, and a series of objects that tell the story of reporters who gave their lives to get the story.
My wife and I nearly skipped the 9/11 video. We figured we'd seen those images all too often. We poked our heads in and stayed for a ridiculously long time. We had not seen this stuff. Neither have you. This is raw footage collected by a New York City TV cameraman, who describes how, just as the towers were collapsing, he rocked back and forth between surging toward the carnage and fleeing for his life. This is the stuff the TV stations didn't show in those first weeks after 9/11, because it was too raw, too painful, too searing. But this is not terrorism porn, either.
Rather, what the curators have put together here is an important story about why the bloggers and pundits and highly specialized experts of the web era do not fulfill all of our information needs. The WNYC radio reporters who talk about how they worked that awful morning demonstrate just how human, fragile, flawed and essential this work can be; their stories are going to make the 9/11 video theater at the Newseum so popular that the small room will prove incapable of handling the crowds. The Newseum executives I saw Friday night told me they have realized this already. This society has many unhealed wounds and unaddressed traumas from 2001. This exhibit is an early and important step toward dealing with those private memories.
Less emotional but at least as engrossing is a bank of video screens that offer a deep selection of TV reports ranging from Morley Safer in a Vietnamese jungle to a 1975 NBC report on how U.S. defense analysts have put together a network of computers that would one day be dubbed the Internet. The reporter got the meaning of the story wrong--he thought it was all about the potential invasion of privacy that would result from stringing together all those computers--but it's a report that gets you thinking, as do dozens of others.
Maybe it's because I knew some reporters who were injured or killed in the line of duty and are now honored with the telling of their stories at the Newseum, but I don't think so: There is inherent power and import in seeing Daniel Pearl's passport and the bullet-ridden car that a Time photographer used to cover the war in the former Yugoslavia and a slew of other symbols of the dedication and sacrifice involved in the decision to go to dangerous places and serve as a witness for the rest of us. It's fashionable and fun to bash reporters, and the Newseum gets into the act--the Don Henley song "Dirty Laundry" plays in a prominent spot, and there are plenty of news bloopers and scandals presented throughout the building. But the curators have found powerful ways to send a message about the elemental role a free press plays in the foundation and bones of this society.
The overwrought chiseling of the First Amendment on the enormous stone tablet that makes up much of the building's front is a bit on the grandoise side, but the contents of the Newseum make the point far more effectively and persuasively: Collecting and telling the stories of our times can be honest and powerful work.
What the Newseum doesn't do is take the next step and confront us with this: Our country is in the process of dismantling its news-gathering and story-telling capacity, and while that process includes the birth of some exciting and promising technologies as well as a welcome democratization of the information flow in this country and around the world, we are quickly losing the structures that make it possible for your local school board and city council, and your state legislature and federal government, to be effectively watched and assessed.
But maybe the museum doesn't have to hit us over the head with that puzzle. Maybe just exploring the stories the Newseum does offer will force at least some of us to wonder where we're headed and whether it might be in the wrong direction.
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