But little of that sad trajectory was apparent in its tone or exhibitions. Then, as now, the Newseum offered an upbeat ideal of what the news industry could be, its heroic past, its relationship with history, its expression of fundamental democratic values. The voices heard on the videos — Charles Osgood, Cokie Roberts — branded journalism as a necessity for self-governance and the foremost expression of the rights embedded in the First Amendment. The exhibitions told a complex story, including journalistic blind spots, occasional ethical lapses and the ever-present tendency to bias. But the larger message always equated journalism with a vision of culture that was dynamic, pluralistic and ever bending, like the moral arc of the universe, toward justice.
Actual journalists often found the tone a bit mawkish and sentimental, like the voice-over on films you used to watch about civics in grade school. But as the crisis in journalism escalated, as colleagues lost jobs and the country confronted a future in which many localities would have no professional journalism outlets at all, criticizing the Newseum felt a bit gratuitous.
Obituaries for the Newseum as a Washington cultural behemoth must include purely pragmatic considerations. It opened across the street from the National Gallery of Art, which, like most of the museums in the city, including the Smithsonian museums that line the Mall, is free. That made it hard for some, especially families, to justify the $25 adult admission. The museum went overbudget building its swanky new home, and it paid oversize salaries to its executives.
And despite its roots in the populist news movement — founder Al Neuharth also created USA Today, which polished every news squib to a nutritionally insignificant McNugget — the building and the social cues it gave off may have seemed elitist. The museum depended on revenue from rentals of the venue, which was designed to host galas, and on many evenings the neighboring streets had a champagne-and-red-carpet buzz (one of the building’s tenants was the Source, an Asian fusion joint with a $135 tasting menu). A visit to the luxurious ninth-floor executive offices and upper-level conference spaces made clear the rigid, Versailles-like hierarchies embedded in the corporate model of American journalism.
The Newseum, however, was also prey to the economic and cultural forces that have bedeviled institutions as diverse as symphony orchestras and the electronic media. It had to compete for audience and achieve the right balance between substance and entertainment. Like so many organizations in American society, it struggled to find a compromise between being authoritative and being accessible.
Neuharth, a former Gannett executive, championed a brand of journalism that posed as anti-elitist and upbeat, offering “a new journalism of hope” in a culture of cynicism and suspicion. His 1989 memoir, “Confessions of an S.O.B.,” was a sustained attack on the putative arrogance of the old-guard media and coastal elites, with more than a few premonitions of Trumpian contempt for convention, rigor and professionalism.
The Newseum embodied that spirit, without succumbing to its worst excesses. The exhibition design, by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, manifested the populism of an engaged, attentive, people-friendly media by stressing ideas of noise and ferment, a postmodern saturation in information, and a preference for popular emotional moments over pointy-headed deep engagement. Outside the theater where the events of 9/11 played on a continual, patriotically self-reinforcing tape loop, someone placed a metal tissue box, an overt invitation to weep.
The design of the building, too, mimicked the online world of flux, self-expression and the percolation of culture from below, all the ideals of the optimistic early age of Internet culture. It suggested a perpetual motion of people circulating but rarely alighting. Bridges at odd angles connected balconies across the ample atrium, elevators and stairs stressed movement, and the facade the building put to Pennsylvania Avenue exuded the slick busyness of last year’s desktop model repackaged with a new case, screen and buttons to make everything feel up-to-date. Designed by architect James Polshek, the building, like many of the exhibits, had a gee-whiz enthusiasm for technology, as if to reassert as loudly as possible the primary thing in doubt: The news is keeping up with the times.
Messages got mixed. It wasn’t clear whether the Newseum was meant to be a shrine to the First Amendment, which was chiseled on a giant panel affixed to the building’s exterior. Or was it meant to offer a social history of news and newsgathering? Or was it devoted to the history of free expression and political self-determination through the prism of journalism? All of the above. So dissonance was everywhere, happy sounds filtered into somber spaces, and even today, if you stand in the Journalists Memorial, you can hear Seth Meyers making jokes in a nearby exhibit about the cross-fertilization of news and comedy.
If you stayed long enough, explored deep enough and absorbed even a fraction of the stimuli on offer, the Newseum came to seem like the proverbial map that is as big as the world it represents. The news was everywhere, it was everything, it was life itself.
Meanwhile, the culture was changing. The Internet, which empowered citizen journalists, became the most powerful tool for disinformation ever invented; social media companies exploited and leveraged that power for profit; the populist ideals espoused by men like Neuharth went sour, or were overwhelmed by a darker, more violent form of populism; and the Newseum utterly failed to capture the imagination of the country. People didn’t flock there the way they went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum when it was new, or the way they make pilgrimages to the various memorials and monuments synecdochally linked to such ideas as freedom and civil rights.
News was everywhere, so why would anyone think that it needed a shrine, or that the Newseum was essential to maintaining its dignity? More ominously, forces in American culture long hostile to journalism gained the upper hand in an effort to discredit not just the profession, but also the idea that an informed public is critical to the survival of the Republic. Born in an age of populist faith in citizen journalism, the Newseum died in the age of “fake news,” with journalists branded by the president the “enemy of the people.”
Despite its problems, the Newseum got a lot of things right. Its hyperactive exhibition design is now the norm and has succeeded in other museums. There could have been more emphasis on examining the corporate control and corruption of journalism, but the curators didn’t entirely avoid the issue. Most of the exhibits still hold up; many are smart, engaging and rich in content, and they’ve kept up with current events and changes in media culture.
No, the larger failure wasn’t about the museum or its style of presenting information. It certainly had nothing to do with the attentive and engaging people who still work there. The problem was us, our lack of resistance to the trivial, or acceptance of an economy that concentrated power in the hands of a small minority of corporate leaders, and our appetite for the mind-numbing snack food of that terrible monstrosity once known as cable news. The Newseum couldn’t fix that.