The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the Newseum creeps out journalists and should bother you, too

(Sam Kittner/Newseum)

The Newseum, a seven-story building with the First Amendment chiseled onto its stone facade, is a grand monument to some of my favorite freedoms: speech, press, religion and, um, the other two. And yet I rarely visit the place. The steep ticket price — $24.95, as compared to $0 for all the nearby Smithsonians — is part of the reason, but it’s also because the flashy building seems to run counter to the gritty profession it purports to represent. I don’t trust it, just like I wouldn’t trust a beat reporter with a penchant for bespoke suits and luxury cars. “Who paid for that?” is the question that comes to mind.

When I visited the Newseum last week, the answer was both clear and obfuscated. I found plenty of discreet plaques paying homage to corporations like Comcast (sponsor of the 9/11 Gallery) and Bloomberg (sponsor of the Internet, TV and Radio Gallery), plus one screen outside the News History Gallery playing a lengthy commercial for News Corp. The Newseum claims curatorial independence, but when I came across a display case heralding the advent of Fox News as an important milestone in the history of journalism, I couldn’t help but feel suspicious.

In many ways, the Newseum reminded me of the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, a building-shaped commercial for its namesake corporation — though a more perfect analogy would be a World of Soft Drinks erected by all of the major soda manufacturers.

Like the World of Coca-Cola, a visit to the Newseum begins with a “4-D” movie. I joined a group of teens in the mostly empty theater and donned my 3-D glasses. We were whisked into the Revolutionary War as reported by newspaper publisher (and combatant — a clear conflict of interest) Isaiah Thomas. As troops rushed into battle, I felt what I assumed was someone kicking the back of my seat. Then I realized the seat was motorized, and it jiggled around vaguely in time with events in the movie — lurching forward, for instance, as a ship pitched in the sea. That is, apparently, the fourth dimension.

The movie then jumped to the story of Nellie Bly, who got herself committed at a New York insane asylum to write an exposé of the inhumane conditions there. Then we fast-forwarded to Edward R. Murrow’s live broadcast of the London bombings during WWII. All three stories are played for maximum drama, with whizzing musket balls and giant rats threatening our hero journalists. These are flashy and inspiring examples of journalism, for sure, but what about the work of modern investigative reporters? Newseum, I want to see a movie where David Fahrenthold is imperiled by towering, 3-D stacks of Trump Foundation tax filings.

I rode a glass elevator up to the Newseum’s top floor and landed at “Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics,” a temporary exhibit created in collaboration with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A pair of 50-something men — the exhibit’s target demographic, I suspect — stopped to marvel at things like Jimi Hendrix’s guitar and Bob Dylan’s harmonica. I was so impressed with Lady Gaga’s meat dress that I almost didn’t notice that this exhibit has no clear link to journalism.

Another popular exhibit with a strained connection to the museum’s mission is “Inside Today’s FBI.” It features charismatic objects on loan from the agency, including an assault rifle used by the D.C. snipers and a car abandoned at Dulles Airport by Sept. 11 hijackers. I and my fellow tourists were transfixed by these objects, staring at them as if looking for any residue of evil left behind by their former owners.

I noticed that the exhibit spotlighted mostly straightforward stories of FBI ingenuity and success — and that, once again, activated my journalistic skepticism. I later did a little Googling and found a 2016 Washingtonian article about how the FBI got to review the exhibit and offer editorial commentary before it opened.

Perhaps it’s naive to expect a journalism museum to abide by journalistic ethics — lord knows it’s tough to make money by telling the unvarnished truth about things. (And the museum is having trouble staying afloat already.) But perhaps the Newseum is missing a teachable moment. At the end of the FBI exhibit, for instance, the Newseum could acknowledge the agency’s role and note why source review and accepting gifts are both forbidden at respectable newspapers.

Instead, the FBI exhibit ends with a whiteboard that poses a question: “What would you give up to feel safer?” I watched as visitors wrote a variety of answers, including “my hair” and “my home.” “Really?” I asked a college freshman who had just written “my phone.” on the board. “You’d give up your phone for a sense of security?” “If I had to,” she replied. “What about the freedom of the press?” I asked, sassily. “Sure,” her friend answered before taking the marker and adding “press” to the already lengthy list.

Editor’s note: The Newseum maintains that it exercises editorial control over all of its exhibits. That position was omitted from this article. 

More reviews from the Staycationer

What’s the deal with Ollie’s Trolley?

Seeing the monuments at night by Segway may not be cool, but it’s awesome

The best and worst D.C. tourist spots I’ve visited so far