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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.

By Marc Fisher |  April 15, 2008; 7:30 AM ET
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Comments

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The news media 'dismantled' itself by blindly allowing our government to lead us to a devastating war in Iraq, without doing even the most basic aspect of their jobs - a healthy skepticism of 'trust us' claims from the government.

Used to be the media could be counted on to show that healthy skepticism.

I and countless others lost all respect for most major news outlets after they so terribly bungled the pre-war news coverage.

Posted by: Hillman | April 15, 2008 8:46 AM

I loved the old Newseum when it was located in Arlington...when it was free. I've heard the new location is charging 20 bucks. How come?

Posted by: Budget Minded | April 15, 2008 9:13 AM

"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."

The "effectively" is the problem that I have with journalism - the idea that only journalists can truly and faithfully report. This idea has been proven false repeatedly - in cases where reporters were making outright fabrications, the system didn't catch them. Being a credentialed journalist doesn't mean much, if anything.

The idea of people getting news analysis from a few sources with the predominance of information is quickly passing. In its place are blogs and easier access to primary sources. It's different - it's not necessarily better, but I don't think that it's worse.

Posted by: Franconia | April 15, 2008 9:19 AM

Marc,
Perhaps the reason that there was no explanation for the dismantling is because of the title sponsors. There's an effusive plaque about Newscorp/Fox News just past that very exhibit of the shot out car. (At the entrance to the history hall, with the pull out newspapers.)

Posted by: Joe in SS | April 15, 2008 9:37 AM

I was in DC this past weekend visiting my son, he is a journalism major at American Univ graduating next Fall. It was a free day as it was the opening. Yes, nice building, I guess. The twenty bucks for some family from Ohio? They will have a problem moving forward. I worry about my son chasing a print job.The papers are hurting,my local paper is on the block. Pelosi was on the jumbotron speaking about free press and how important it is to our society. Well if that the case why doesn't the Press step it up? Quit worrying about ad revenue and get out of the tank.

Posted by: mike | April 15, 2008 10:58 AM

So the Newseum will "will force at least some of us to wonder where we're headed and whether it might be in the wrong direction." I'm guessing that it will leave many wondering why they just shelled out twenty dollars ahead and decide that they need to head to McDonalds rather than to one of Penn Quarter's nicer eateries for lunch.

Posted by: Paul | April 15, 2008 11:52 AM

Much like radio news was surpassed by TV journalism, Dead-Tree print journalism will easily be surpassed by online delivery methods. The delivery methods will always change with technology. Thankfully the free market is well suited to sorting out how to distribute the remaining resources optimally.

The delivery method of news isn't the only think changing. As long as a dumbed-down-by-bad-public-schools citizenry is more interested in which celebutards are "marrying" each other for the summer, and showing no interest in technology, science, politics, or philosophy it doesn't matter if we get our "news" from reputable paparazzi with the Washington Post or disreputable paparazzi with the Enquirer.

Posted by: Leesburger | April 15, 2008 3:41 PM

An arrogant, self-congratulatory monument to a dying profession in dire need of a dose of humility.

If the news media focused on reporting facts rather than hawking a biased liberal agenda, there might be a future for the profession.

Posted by: Dan | April 15, 2008 4:14 PM

Marc: Was there an exhibit about backpack journalists? I bet plenty of them were there, shooting their own photos, asking questions and taking notes so they could write stories and upload both text and images. That is what the business end of journalism will look like for the next decade, and what separates journalism from blogging: the gathering of actual facts in the field. It is an awkward, unromantic, exhausting, and low-paying job, just like the days when reporting was a trade and nobody got called a journalist.

Posted by: Mike Licht | April 15, 2008 4:37 PM

The problem is as evident as the headlines in the Post. They're not reporting facts so much as opinions. They put cutesy language into articles that is often misleading. Headlines are often bait-and-switch. The line between the Opinion Page and the rest of the A-Section has been blurred to the point that it's hard to see where one begins and the other ends. Then there's the fact that about half of newspaper articles are no more than reprints of the AP feeds. I can read AP feeds anywhere for free. Which leads to the internet. Therein lies the biggest problem. Whereas the printing press opened up reading to the common person, the internet opens up publishing to the common person. Why should I pay the Post, NBC or other companies to spin the facts and tell me what I'm supposed to think? News agencies have lost their credibility. If I want economic information, I tend to glance at internet news, and then read the original data myself so I get a cleaner picture without someone TELLING me what the data says. Others read blogs which are often better written and cheaper to produce. Blogs are more fun, because they make no pretenses about being "unbiased." For issues where I am an activist, I rely on the flow of email in my respective groups. We know the news before it's news. The bottom line is that News agencies do little more than repackage other people's work with a little spin to justify their paycheck. The average person can see through that.

Posted by: Todd | April 16, 2008 8:05 AM

The print media is getting hammered because, as the above letters show, people would rather just read what they themselves perceive as "news" with a viewpoint that confirms or comports with their world view and what they already "know" to be "true". It's just an extension or the logical result of the culture of "Me" that has pervaded this country for the last 40 years.

Posted by: Stick | April 16, 2008 8:33 AM

Leesburger: So television has "surpassed" radio as a news source? I don't think so. Compare any five minutes of network, cable or local TV news to what you get on NPR or the BBC.

Posted by: namos | April 16, 2008 10:11 AM

Namos:

Surpassed in terms of audience numbers historically, without a doubt. Surpassed in terms of quality historically with the advent of video, debatable. You are proving my point exactly however. With the increased competition of TV several decades ago, News Radio like NPR or WTOP had to refine its product or die. With the surmise of the Fairness Doctrine in the 80's, news radio flourished again as talk radio. Now both TV news and news radio have been supplanted by cnn.com or washingtonpost.com or foxnews.com. They both will survive in their niches (news radio for commuters, and TV news for old people). If you still want to dither over the numbers or quality of 2 dying mediums in the present feel free.

Posted by: Leesburger | April 16, 2008 10:38 AM

demise not surmise. ecxuse teh typos

Posted by: Leesburger | April 16, 2008 10:40 AM

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