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Read All About It!By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 1997; Page C1
Regarding the Newseum, which opens today in Rosslyn:
New York columnist Jimmy Breslin, one of the last of the chow-line necktie, spit-on-the-floor, deadline fat-ego guys, said recently, "It sounds absolutely sickening." Along with a lot of newspaper writers who have yet to convert to the Ivy League/ethical/internship/journalism school/professionalism of this business in 1997, I am happy to let Breslin speak for me when he says, "I don't want any museums. . . . You're supposed to be scruffy and despised. You're not supposed to be honored."
This is how I get to be a museum piece who is asked for thoughts on the Newseum.
To be sure (an all-purpose transition popular at newspapers), I hate the idea of the Newseum. However, and much against my will, I like the execution. (It's like USA Today, that way.)
I hate the hokey name, and the fact that something called the Freedom Forum, headed by USA Today founder Al Neuharth (yes, fans of Al, he still looks like a Vegas pit boss dressed up for Wayne Newton's funeral), managed to get Virginia to put "Newseum" exit signs on Routes 66 and 395, and did it weeks and weeks before the Newseum even opened and anybody had any idea how many people would visit. The Alamo doesn't get signage this big. Manhattan doesn't.
But I like all the noisy multi-screen wraparound 1960s Marshall McLuhan cinerama global-village mosaic idealism. It probably makes me feel nostalgic -- perfect for the Newseum, which wants to look avant-garde while being safe, safe, safe.
I like the thousands and thousands of things: the headless toppled statue of Lenin outside in Freedom Park; the briefcase of reporter William Kellogg, who rode with Custer at Little Bighorn, his last dispatch reading that there was going to be big trouble and he'd be there at "the death," his among them; an Egyptian statue of Thoth, ibis-god of scribes, a droopy-beaked bird who looks like many of the great copy editors I've known, and sitting just as horribly still in its judgmental scrutiny.
I like Charles Dickens's pen, Frederick Douglass's pocket watch, Mark Twain's pipe -- none of these guys was above setting readers to ranting and hooting, and where are they now that we need them in this high-minded age? Countless front pages demonstrate that the art of layout is like high fashion -- it changes dramatically but does not improve much over time.
There's a huge blowup of the New York Daily News front page bearing a smuggled photograph of one Ruth Snyder, the first woman to take the hot squat, as a Philadelphia paper once put it -- she looks blurry but very, very tense in the Sing Sing electric chair under the headline: "Dead!"
The Daily News understood the beauty of simplicity.
There are other firsts here -- one of the first cameras to transmit "The Evening News With Walter Cronkite," for instance -- and I'd probably remember what they all are if I were more in the encyclopedic, multicultural diversity news-from-many-lands spirit of the Newseum with its two-story geodesic globe with names of 1,841 newspapers all over it, a spirit that evokes the Life magazine 1950s with their pandemic United Nations family-of-man-ism. Nearby is a wall with the word "news" written in 50 languages.
I don't like this. When the paper hits my lawn I want to feel like somebody just threw me a newspaper. I don't want to feel like a Halloween trick-or-treater just pushed a UNICEF coin box at me.
I like seeing great old headline words like "fiend," "gigolo" and "prof." I like the drums that used to send messages in Africa and the buffalo robe that used to release the puffs in American Indian smoke signaling. I get nervous when the whole place keeps telling me that something important is going on inside newsrooms. It may be, but the news business is founded on the principle that something far more important is always going on outside newsrooms -- reality, the world, everything, anything.
I do not like the who-what-when-where-how-and-why blocks that revolve, and you have to line up the faces that go with the same story, which is pretty easy if it's about Michael Jordan, with basketball stuff on every block but one: the "when" block, with the date. Just the date. No slam-dunk, nothing.
So who knows which date goes where?
"From the color. Each block has red on it. The kids get it immediately," said the "managing editor" of the museum, Eric Newton. Too bad stories aren't color-coded in the real world. All the news that's fit to crayon.
A wall exhibit talks about Grantland Rice's great Notre Dame vs. Army football story in 1924 and says it "begins" with: "In dramatic lore they were known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden."
What tin ear screwed this one up? How could anyone chop off the first sentence?
We will enshrine it here, in case the Newseum doesn't get it fixed by noon today, when the first visitors go through the doors. The lead as Rice wrote it: "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again." Then the stuff about Famine, etc.
I also dislike the idea of interactive anything. You don't interact, you learn to take orders from a machine, especially the computer terminals that make you a reporter at the "Daily Miracle," and then freeze up on you if, in the middle of running from hospital to school, reporting on schoolkids sickened by tainted cheese, you don't go back to the Miracle to pull the library clips.
What? In real journalism, you don't go back. You wait till you get back or you pull the clips before you leave, and read them while driving until the wind blows them all over the back seat, where you were recently living. But the computer says no, so you can't go to the cheese company or the warehouse, and you end up with the managing editor screaming, "You call this a story?"
You call this a newspaper? You call yourself a managing editor? You're just a bunch of pixilated pixels. Actually, to simulate a real journalism atmosphere, they should have the computers freeze up over and over, particularly on deadline, and then have someone in a place with a name like "Systems Management" tell you, "There's a backup at the mainframe."
"I don't want an explanation," you say. "I want it fixed."
"Sign off and sign on again . . . "
"I'll lose everything I wrote!"
"You won't lose that much."
"I haven't written that much."
The Newseum does convey the sense that, as the late Washington Post publisher Philip Graham said, journalists write "the first rough draft of history." But it doesn't communicate the resigned stoop and Hush Puppy shuffle that comes of knowing you'll probably never write the final draft, which is known simply as "history."
How to convey the neurotic desperation of journalists, their fears that deep down they are shallow, like the Newseum with all its Wizard of Oz thunder and shimmer?
As a journalist, you have knowledge that the Newseum is trying to eradicate from the American mind the unspoken conviction that journalists occupy the same rung on the belovedness ladder as gym teachers, executives of unions and charities, city planners, car salesmen, consultants, missionaries, school officials using the title of "Dr.," tow truck drivers, liberals of the sort who do things "for your own good," and all those who promise to help the American Indian -- in other words, people who borrow your watch to tell you what time it is, and then go home with the watch.
You get more feeling for the newspaper business from Daily Planet panels in an old Superman comic than you get at the Newseum.
And what is all this neatness? Newsrooms are not neat, they look like the inside of Dennis Hopper's mind. And where is the Newspaper Guild, the writers and editors union that has done as much as any other entity to get the standards of journalism as high as they are today? (Please, no whining letters to the editor about the low standards exemplified by incorrect use of "whom.")
But happy. Truly. A happy feeling comes out of this place, which is why it communicates none of the atmosphere of any newspaper I ever worked at or heard of, but why it just may be a hit with the tour agents who keep those buses and kids rolling around Washington.
There's a TV broadcast studio, there are booths where kids will play weatherman or White House reporter. They can buy the tapes at the gift shop, where in pre-opening tours, real journalists have been buying a lot of T-shirts that say: "Trust me. I'm a reporter." A lot of journalists may come -- the admission is free.
I think these journalists are on Breslin's side, my side, however quietly. I think that something in them hates the idea of the Newseum, but something in them likes the execution a lot, even if it fails to convey any of the truth expressed in 1924 in a paragraph by one Stanley Walker of the New York Herald Tribune, quoted recently on the Internet:
"What makes a good newspaperman? The answer is easy. He knows everything. . . . He is not only handsome, but he has the physical strength which enables him to perform great feats of energy. He can go for nights on end without sleep. He dresses well and talks with charm. Men admire him, women adore him; tycoons and statesmen are willing to share their secrets with him. He hates lies and meanness and sham, but he keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper and what he looks upon as a profession; whether it is a profession, or merely a craft, he resents attempts to debate it. When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days."
As for the apparent target audience, the tour-bus kids: After all those hours at the Archives, and staring at pictures of Chester A. Arthur at the National Portrait Gallery, and wondering what they're supposed to stare at inside the Library of Congress, and not being allowed inside the White House and waiting on endless line at the Washington Monument -- even after visiting the fabulous ethereal heft of the Lincoln Memorial -- they'll be happy to get to the Newseum.
The subject of this museum is a business that made a subject of stuff found in other museums -- the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Insurance Hall of Fame, and I seem to remember a museum of cheese in either Canajoharie or Canandaigua, N.Y.
Nothing in it has the beauty or the high-tech mojo of the planes and rockets at the Air and Space Museum, or the full-size whale and stuffed elephant at Natural History. Air and Space gives you the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh's actual plane, while the Newseum gives actual front pages with stories about Lindbergh landing in France.
Still, the Newseum has a glass elevator just like the mall back home, and Tokyo Rose's microphone even though the kids have never heard of Tokyo Rose. It has computer games and then 126 feet of pure all-devouring and endless television including the ads blown up to a size that would make even Breslin realize there's some connection here to the real world that pays his salary for making remarks about places like the Newseum.