Memories of the Newseum and thoughts about its role as it closes
The Newseum. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Now here’s a sad news lede to report: the Newseum is closing forever in just a few days.
The museum dedicated to the Freedom of the Press will close after educating visitors for the past decade in Washington D.C. For years, it has honored the importance of journalism and highlighted the efforts of reporters — past and present — who take on the noble profession of informing the public.
I visited the Newseum for the first time in 2016. Right away, you encounter a giant piece of the Berlin Wall. Nearby is a giant guard tower from the East Germany side. I spent a good 20 to 30 minutes pacing around the exhibit until my internal museum clock urged me to move on.
An entire section is dedicated to press freedoms and those have been harmed, kidnapped or killed on the job. It really put my role as a reporter in perspective. Sure, I might get the occasional nasty call, email or Facebook comment, but that pales in comparison to the safety concerns other journalists face all around the globe.
American reporters and citizens alike are lucky to live in a country that establishes these journalistic freedoms in the Bill of Rights. Still, this country is not immune to press retaliation. The Newseum highlighted the death of Chauncey Bailey, a reporter with the Oakland Post who was shot and killed on his way to work in 2007. (Two years after my visit, five employees, including four reporters, were shot and killed at The Capital Gazette newspaper office in Maryland.)
Among the Newseum exhibits, my personal favorite was the news history section, featuring countless historic front pages from the past few centuries. I enjoyed an hour or two in that room and could have spent a whole day in there.
Another treat was seeing all of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs from major moments in history. Photojournalists do not get nearly the credit in our industry that they deserve.
Despite all of this, there are many reporters and writers cheering on the Newseum’s demise. Jack Shafer of Politico roared with delight when he learned of the owners’ announcement in 2017 that they planned to sell the building.
“If the Newseum goes down, it will have deserved its death,” he wrote. “Truth be told, it never deserved birth.”
Shafer and others took issue with the gaudy building itself, which includes a marbled facade with the text of the First Amendment. (I think it looks cool, but what do I know about architecture?)
They criticize its immense collections, or what Shafer described as “exhibits that often resemble the detritus from a flea market.”
“Journalism is a living thing, like an ocean tide,” he wrote, “its energies dissipate when sealed in Lucite for display.”
That’s true, to a point. The Newseum had some other missteps over the years, as any organization does, such as its decision to sell “Fake News” T-shirts. A spokesperson defended this choice by calling it a “satirical rebuke” to those who have issued blanket critiques of the press during Donald Trump’s rise. “Dear @Newseum,” media critic Jay Rosen tweeted, “You lost your bearings. You’re adrift.”
And the Newseum, with its $25 per patron tickets, also had to compete against the wealth of free learning available throughout the rest of D.C., from the Library of Congress to the National Portrait Museum.
Sure, if you’re an ordinary family of four visiting D.C., you were unlikely to spend $100 on a museum with dozens of other free locations to choose from.
The ticket price didn’t bother me, though. Twenty-five bucks was a small price to pay for a full afternoon of fun and learning. You can hardly get peanuts, a hot dog and a drink at a baseball game for that price. Why not spend it on promoting and understanding something more valuable?
One of my last stops on the Newseum tour was to see the Front Pages gallery. I was inspired by newspapers big and small, from Massachusetts to Arizona and hundreds of communities in between. I saw a few from Ohio that featured former colleagues and journalism school classmates.
That is why I’m sad to see it close. I appreciate that something existed that made the case for journalism. As gaudy as the building was, as pricey as the tickets were, I respected the Newseum for making a case for journalism — why it exists, why it’s important, and why we need to protect it.
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