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At Sparkly Newseum, The Glory Of the Story Goes Above the Fold

I was equally fascinated by a dark room filled with old newspapers: the 1882 banner in the Neosho (Mo.) Times, "JESSE JAMES Assassinated" (the rest of the front page devoted to an ad for one store's clothing and hat department); the 1947 headline in the Washington Afro American, "Brooklyn Signs Jackie Robinson"; the 1962 front page of the Los Angeles Times (with "Marilyn Monroe Dies, Blame Pills"). And what might have been a ponderous press-freedom exhibit is leavened by an original Matt Groening drawing of Bart Simpson writing repeatedly on the blackboard, "The First Amendment Does Not Cover Burping."

One of the most popular activities, a carry-over from the old Newseum, allows kids (and older folks) to tape a stand-up in front of the Capitol, the Grand Canyon or other fake backdrops. In a 21st-century update, the video can now be sent to their home computers.

An interactive ethics gallery features a tabletop game in which two teams vie to answer such questions as, "The military asks you not to run a story on defective body armor. Do you agree?" And kids seemed fascinated on the day I visited by an animated video game -- also an upgrade from the Rosslyn days -- in which you play a newspaper editor making decisions about a developing story.

There is a nice sense of serendipity to the place. Touch one computer screen and you can look at excerpts of famous books and documents, such as the Magna Carta and "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass." Walk down a different corridor and you can see Howard Cosell shadowboxing with Muhammad Ali, or CNN's Bernard Shaw in Baghdad as the Persian Gulf War bombs started dropping, or 44 cartoons from the New Yorker. Another stroll takes you past a 90-foot video wall that might be showing breaking news or documentaries (part of one of the building's 15 theaters, along with two television studios). Glance toward the ceiling and check out the Rolling Stone cover of a naked John Lennon draped over Yoko Ono. And while the Newseum displays 80 newspaper front pages each day, you can click on a screen for 500 such pages.

It is, in short, an overstuffed buffet, which diminishes its focus but increases the chances that you might find a few servings to your liking.

Overby says he hopes visitors will come away with a better understanding of the importance of a free press. Still, some insiders fear it will be viewed as a giant vanity project. And none of this comes cheap.

We're all spoiled by the plethora of free Smithsonian museums, but the $20 admission fee -- $13 for those 7 to 12, with younger kids free -- feels stiff. Eighty bucks for a couple with two teenagers? The Freedom Forum is delivering an upscale experience. (Yes, the Spy Museum charges adults $18, but doesn't claim any lofty educational goals.) On top of that, taking the family to the Newseum's Wolfgang Puck restaurant will set you back $13.95 for the Provencal salmon and $12.95 for the paella Valencia.

Local school groups, however, can attend free, under a partnership with The Washington Post. Founding partners -- including Time Warner, News Corp., Hearst, the New York Times, NBC News and ABC News -- have ponied up $5 million to $15 million, and each receives a positive, wall-mounted storyboard or, in NBC's case, a video in which Brian Williams welcomes visitors. (The Newseum says these media giants have no influence over the exhibits.)

One of the last displays I happened upon featured film clips of Edward R. Murrow -- his show "presented by the Aluminum Co. of America" -- assailing the sleazy tactics of Joe McCarthy (and, moments later, interviewing a coquettish Marilyn Monroe). McCarthy, in a rebuttal, called Murrow "the cleverest of the jackal pack." The Newseum tends to glamorize Murrow and his successors and downplay the jackals. But without such exhibits, in an age of YouTube attention spans, much of this might be lost to the mists of history.

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