By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008
The new incarnation of the Newseum is dazzling, innovative and absorbing, a first-class addition to the capital's cultural institutions.
It is also, in some respects, an overpriced monument to journalistic self-glorification. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
A stroll around its six light-filled levels on Pennsylvania Avenue, with spectacular views of the Capitol and other majestic neighbors, reveals that it is actually a history museum disguised as a media retrospective. Eight giant, forbidding sections of the Berlin Wall -- stark concrete on the Communist side, graffiti-covered on the Western side -- are proof of that. Even without the accompanying exhibit, which describes how a Reuters correspondent named Adam Kellett-Long broke the story of the border's closing in 1961, it is a head-turning discovery.
History also oozes from the photos and videos that recall disasters from the Hindenburg explosion to the JFK assassination to 9/11. But none of these images is quite as heart-stopping as the spire of mangled, twisted steel that had been the communications tower atop the World Trade Center, or a huge limestone chunk of the Pentagon from the day of the attacks.
If the anchors, reporters, photographers and cameramen who recorded those seismic events are bathed in a warm glow, that is not by accident. "I don't shy away from the narrative that there is something heroic about the practitioners of a free press," says Charles Overby, chief executive of the Freedom Forum, which built the Newseum.
While he sees the $450 million venture, which opens Friday, taking a "warts and all" approach, the truth is that the warts are small and strategically tucked away. The uplifting aura that permeates the building seems at odds with the growing public distrust of the news business and the huge journalistic blunders that have pockmarked its reputation.
In a corner of one narrow exhibit case are panels devoted to out-and-out liars: Janet Cooke of The Washington Post, Stephen Glass of the New Republic, Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today. Each gets a paragraph or so. So does Judith Miller, whose badly flawed Times reports on Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction are briefly described under the headline "When Anonymous Sources Are Wrong." Media critic Bernard Goldberg's book "Bias" graces another case, along with a picture of a protesters' banner: "No More Media Lies!" And there are a series of mistaken headlines, from newspapers prematurely awarding the 2000 election to George W. Bush to the botched New York Post scoop that John Kerry had picked Dick Gephardt as his running mate.
That, and a couple of skeptical films, are about it.
Far more common are the journalist-as-hero exhibits, such as the one devoted to Watergate and John Mitchell's infamous quote about how Katharine Graham, the late Washington Post owner, would get a sensitive part of her anatomy caught in a big fat wringer if the paper published a story tying him to the criminal conspiracy. The paint-peeling Watergate hotel door that led to the burglars' capture is there, along with a monitor showing reports on the scandal by the likes of Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor.
Media buffs will enjoy such artifacts as Thomas Paine's writing desk, a spike used by the irascible columnist H.L. Mencken and pens wielded by the great Post cartoonist Herblock, not to mention the first satellite truck, rolled out in Minneapolis in 1984. And it's hard to miss the news helicopter that hangs over the vast atrium, along with a replica of a communications satellite (the actual ones tend to wind up being destroyed). The place is more than three times the size of the old Newseum in Rosslyn, which closed in 2002 after a five-year run.
There is the shock value of the bomb-damaged white Datsun in which Arizona reporter Don Bolles was killed in 1976, but also the whimsy of powder-blue slippers worn by the original Wonkette (Ana Marie Cox) at the 2004 Democratic convention.
As the footwear suggests, the Newseum is capable of striking lighter notes -- what other building would proudly display the 1983 New York Post headline "Headless Body in Topless Bar"? -- that prevent the experience from resembling a high school lecture. The same goes for a monitor playing comedic sendups of media types, including Dan Aykroyd's immortal line, "Jane, you ignorant slut."
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.