At Sparkly Newseum, The Glory Of the Story Goes Above the Fold
Sunday, April 6, 2008; Page M01
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."