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The Media Is the Message

By Hank Burchard

Five years and $50 million in the making, the world's first up-to-the-minute museum opens this Friday in Rosslyn. Called the Newseum, this fancy and free journalism showcase is a brassy and classy attempt to tell where the news industry came from, how reporting is done today, and what may lie ahead for a profession whose current practitioners are as deeply despised and distrusted as lawyers and politicians.

Early vistors to the Newseum react to displays. Photography by Robert A. Reeder/Washington Post
Skeptics suspected that the Newseum would simply be press-lord Allen H. Neuharth's monument to himself as former head of the Gannett Co. (owner of USA Today and a zillion other papers). He is chairman of both the Newseum and Freedom Forum, the foundation that's paying for it. In fact, the Newseum is no such ego trip. It's about as candid and even-handed as could be expected, given that it's an examination and celebration of the press by a bunch of press people. Neuharth, a feisty poor boy who boot-strapped himself to near the pinnacle of American journalism, gets if anything less than his share of notice, just a mention here and there, a brief bio and a mug shot.

The Newseum is a masterpiece of design, 72,000 square feet of space that's open and airy although it was shoehorned into an existing office building by designer Ralph Appelbaum (who also did the Holocaust Museum, among others). The place holds a colossal collection of awesome icons, state-of-the-art communications hardware, inspiring and fearful and disgusting images, and such kitsch, you wouldn't believe. The Newseum is, in short, effectively evocative of the news industry.

Visitors are greeted with a blitz of glitz. The centerpiece of the sparkling glass-and-chrome lobby is a geodesic globe made up of stainless-steel plates bearing the logos of every surviving American daily newspaper and many from around the world. The form gives substance to Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum that The medium is the message. A stair to the 220-seat domed theater winds past a wall covered with newspaper mottoes, including the New York Times's proud and prissy "All the News That's Fit to Print."

The womb-shaped theater features the region's largest high-definition video screen, presenting a 10-minute film called "What Is News?" by four-time Academy Award winner Charles Guggenheim. It doesn't so much answer the question as hammer it into the audience, opening with the booming blastoff of the first manned moon rocket and flitting from snippet to snippet of familiar tragedies such as the Kennedy and King assassinations and triumphs such as V-E Day, interspersed with quotes from notables such as W.E.B. DuBois ("The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression") and Madonna ("Freedom of speech is better than sex").

Here and there in the film appear vignettes of some of the thousand-odd journalists who have given the last full measure of devotion in their pursuit of the news over the past couple of centuries, including Robert Capa (landmine, Vietnam) and Ernie Pyle (Japanese sniper, WWII). Pyle is journalism's favorite martyr, and his battered typewriter is enshrined here. Perhaps more to the point, so is the GI folding shovel the Scripps-Howard feature writer carried; ol' Ernie was a sentimentalist who tended to lay it on rather thick.

Guggenheim's film portrays the role of the press as pretty heroic ("News is the medium of exchange of freedom"), and at least some of us scribes strode forth from its premier showing energized and resolved to do better. That's part of the mission of the museum, and its parent, the nonprofit Freedom Forum ("Dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit"). But mainly, says Chairman Neuharth, "We want to show the public how the press works, warts and all, so that people will have a better understanding of the role of news and free press in our way of life, which is to say, in each of our lives."

While the Newseum maintains a rather wry and irreverent tone, its purpose could hardly be more serious, says executive director Peter S. Prichard, former editor-in-chief of USA Today. "The press is in trouble," he says. "Many people, sometimes a majority, don't believe us, often with good cause. Partly it's because most people outside the profession don't really understand who we are and what we do and how and why we do it. We hope our visitors will come away with a better feel for the business, and a deeper appreciation of the importance of the First Amendment."

Prichard also wants visitors to have a good time, and toward that end the Newseum is a perfect riot of first-person participation and hands-on interactive computer stations. There are fake-it-now broadcast booths where patrons can impersonate Cokie Roberts (or if they'd rather, Dan), rip-and-reading or ad-libbing the latest news on camera. Electronic backgrounding makes it look like the broadcast is originating at the Capitol or on the White House grounds. Kids love it, especially when grown-ups grab a mike and make fools of themselves. Visitors can take a videotape home to show Grandma or the guys at the liars club for $10.

There are video stations where a visitor may test his or her sense of ethics against the decisions made on actual stories by journalists on deadline. The dilemmas presented include the whether to go with the news that tennis great Arthur Ashe had AIDS; whether the Unabomber manifesto should have been printed; and whether it was proper to put an ignition trigger in a pickup truck gas tank to illustrate alleged design flaws. At other stations we're invited to report a breaking story or play editor and supervise the production of tomorrow's front page. There are video booths where, for $5, you can scan your likeness onto the cover of any of a dozen different magazines and take a hard copy home. At another station, entering your birthdate will yield a customized newspaper page of the events of that day for $1.

It's not the least exaggeration to say that the place is state-of-the-art and up-to-the-minute; it's up-to-the-second, actually. The main control room is a vast domain of integrated high-speed communications systems that are wired to the world through phones and fiber optics and sidebands and satellites. It makes the space shuttle's mission control look quaint. Controllers can connect to virtually any station in the world and can simultaneously feed dozens or scores of broadcasts to the video news wall, a video display screen that's two stories high and a block long. The nine panels, totaling 126 horizontal feet, can be operated collectively or independently. It can be a shattering experience when a solid row of newscasters, giant talking heads with big teeth and big hair, are all chattering away at once. The director works from an elevated pulpit very like a harpoonist's perch, cueing up images from the airwaves like Captain Ahab summoning spirits from the vasty deep.

Stretching beneath the giant screen is an array of that day's newspaper front pages from every state and territory and from many of the world's leading newspapers, giving visitors an unprecedented opportunity to see how many different newspapers play-or ignore-major stories. The positioning of the newspaper fence as the foundation of the video wall is appropriate, because as all newspaper people know, electronic journalists get most of the news they give you from reading our papers. Sometimes they don't even retype it, and you can see the edges of the clipping peeking above the anchor desk. This is the inside skinny; remember, you read it here first.

You can't step into the same Newseum twice, because much of its content is reshaped minute by minute as the tide of news ebbs and floods. There's a full-scale broadcast studio where visitors can sit in on news shows or audience-participation productions featuring journalists and newsmakers. In both the lobby and on the news wall, electronic bulletin boards continuously headline breaking stories. In the NewsByte Cafe off the lobby, hunger for food and news can be satisfied simultaneously, with snacks consumed at counters containing computers wired to the Internet and the humongous Lexis-Nexis search engine. "We expect to see some serious news junkies in here," a Newseum spokesman says. There's also a shop that sells everything from century-old broadsheets to genuine Egyptian replicas of Thoth, the Ibis-headed (bird-brained?) god of scribes.

This just in: Round House Theatre will present live daily performances by strolling players purporting to be such personages as "night rider" Paul Revere, hoaxster Mark Twang and investigative reporter Doug Deepenuf. There'll be a dozen scripts in all, and the run will continue indefinitely, depending upon the reviews. It can be reliably reported that Paul Revere's ambush-acting will get your attention and, possibly, start some gray hairs.

If all the Newseum's flash and dash and clamor gets to be too much, you can take a break in the connecting outdoor Freedom Park, occupying what was originally built as a bridge. Now it's the site of a memorial to journalists killed in the line of duty and of various icons of freedom, including a headless statue of Lenin, cast down by revolting Russians, and a bronze replica of the bars of the Birmingham jail cell that once confined the body but not the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For all its awesome technology and hang-the-expense construction, the genius of the Newseum is in the details. Even the restrooms come complete with graffiti, the walls bearing headline bloopers like "He Found God at the End of His Rope" and "Never Withhold Herpes from Loved One" and "Statistics on Women: Some Good and Some Bad" and "Dishonesty Policy Voted in by Senate."

The heart of the place isn't in the electronics but in the holy and humble artifacts of its news history gallery. It would take upward of a week to fully examine the richly layered story it tells, starting with the transmission of news by word of mouth perhaps 100,000 years ago. Steps in the development of information transmission are illustrated by artfully chosen artifacts: Sumerians wrote on clay tablets, and here is a fragment of one from 2176 B.C., bearing the news to some lucky fellow that "your loving wife..has had a child." Incas wrote with knots on string quipus, ancient Africans wrote on the air with drums, Mayans wrote on stone, American Indians wrote on the sky with smoke. Parchment made long yet still portable manuscripts possible, papyrus made them practical. Julius Caesar founded the first known daily newspaper, a broadsheet that was posted in the Roman Forum more or less faithfully for 280 years.

In one case is an Egyptian scribe's account of the trial of eight men who were convicted of robbing the tombs of sons of the Pharaoh Ramses about 1100 B.C. They confessed after torture, which of course is forbidden by our pesky Bill of Rights, the same document that guarantees freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of public complaint and a whole lot of other things. Surveys have consistently shown that half the people in this country say they would vote against such a radical manifesto if it were proposed for adoption today; they're generally the same people who most deeply mistrust the government and the press. These citizens' lack of understanding of the importance of having journalists free to snoop into such questions as whether a president is, say, running a political burglary ring from the Oval Office, gives the folks at the Freedom Forum the willies.

Wherefore they have poured so much money into the Newseum and are committed to running it at a handsome loss for the foreseeable future. They can do this because the foundation's endowment, established in 1935 by a $100,000 donation from Frank E. Gannett, now amounts to more than $800 million. The forum doesn't seek or accept donations, and answers to no one but its board of directors and the Internal Revenue Service (and, of course, Thoth).

This freedom allowed the conception and construction of the museum in less time than the Smithsonian normally takes to mount one major exhibition. And, acutely conscious of the industry's credibility problem, the Newseum has examined the news biz with conspicuous candor that occasionally amounts to self-flagellation. The Washington Post drinks deep from the bitter cup of humiliation it earned with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Janet Cooke hoax, which revealed not only the human frailty of an ambitious young reporter but the careless arrogance of a newspaper puffed up from its Watergate triumph.

Sometimes the comeuppance comes quickly. Among the melancholy artifacts in the news history gallery are the satchel, spare shirt, pencil and eyeglasses of Mark Kellogg of the Bismarck Tribune, who was traveling light in 1876 because he was riding with Custer toward the Little Big Horn. His last dispatch to the Associated Press read, "By the time you read this we will have met and fought the red devils..."

One corner of the gallery is occupied by what can only be called holy relics of journalism. A 1455 Gutenberg Bible, the first, and still perhaps the finest, product of the Western printer's art, the book that opened the information age. Columbus's 1493 "Barcelona Letter," describing what we used to call — before the Native Americans spoke up — "the discovery of the New World"; here, the great navigator and shameless prevaricator claimed, nearly all the rivers run with gold. "Publick Occurrences" (1690), believed to be the first newspaper published in British America (suppressed after one edition). A first edition of Tom Paine's 1776 pamphlet "Common Sense," the firebrand that helped raise American tempers to a fighting pitch.

Sprinkled among the famous news stories, landmarks of printing technology and biographies of noted journalists are what might be called "artifactoids": eyeglasses of Paul Revere, a corncob pipe of Mark Twain's, a pen of Charles Dickens's, a camera of Mathew Brady's, Yellow Kid trading cards and the "Watergate Necklace." Friends had it made for Post publisher Katharine Graham after Attorney General John Mitchell warned she was "going to get her tit caught in a big fat wringer" if the Post published certain Watergate revelations. Here, artfully executed in gold, is a big fat wringer and the threatened appendage, uncaught.

There's some dreadful stuff, too. The electric chair in which murderer Ruth Snyder became both the first woman electrocuted and the first person to have that moment of death photographed (by a newsie who smuggled an ankle camera into the execution chamber) and published. A post-autopsy full-length photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald, his corpse stretched on a gurney after indifferent reassembly with huge, crude stitches. Examples of racist diatribes and crude mockery of women.

And there are little delights, such as the pirate Blackbeard's last words, as reported in the Boston News-Letter of March 2, 1719: "'Well done, Lad,' he says to the Highlander who wounded him. 'I'll do it better,' the lad replies, cutting off his head."

It's probably best to make the first pass through the Newseum with the CD-ROM Walkman-style audio gallery guide for $4. It's narrated via headphones by public radio's Susan Stamberg and Bob Edwards. They leave out a good deal, and sort of hustle you along, which is okay because you can always come back for a more thorough examination of the news history gallery. The extensive recording includes several bonuses. There is archival audio of biggies like H.L. Mencken, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and so forth, and a list of 48 tailored tours to choose from, such as the First Amendment, women in the news or a family tour. Spanish, French and Japanese versions are also available.

If there is a core message in the Newseum's presentation it is that while the technology of newsgathering keeps changing, its essence remains the same. One wall of the history gallery bears this doggerel description by an anonymous editor of the New London (Conn.) Bee, which remains as valid as the day it was published, March 26, 1800:

Here various news we tell of love and strife,
Of peace and war, health, sickness, death and life,
Of loss and gain, of famine and of store,
Of storms at sea, and travel on the shore,
Of prodigies, and portents seen in air,
Of fires, and plagues, and stars with blazing hair,
Of turns of fortune, changes in the state,
The falls of fav'rites, projects of the great,
Of old mismanagements, taxations new,
All neither wholly false nor wholly true.

THE NEWSEUM - 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington (Metro: Rosslyn, one block). 703/284-3544 or toll-free 888-NEWSEUM. Open 10 to 5 Wednesday through Sunday. Free admission by timed-entry passes; call for advance passes. Distribution of same-day tickets begins at 9:45. Wheelchair accessible, with special accommodation for the deaf or blind.


Programs open to the public are scheduled almost daily at the Newseum, but the uncertainties of the news business are such that the staff recommends confirming any program listing below that you may plan to attend, or get details of a particular program, by calling ahead of time.

FRIDAY - From 2-3, Journalist of the Day: Helen Thomas of United Press International; 3:30-4, taping of Hal Bruno's Washington for the ABC radio network.

SATURDAY - From 10-5, Voice of America broadcast.

SUNDAY - From 1-2, Journalist of the Day, Cokie Roberts of ABC and National Public Radio; 2:30-3:30, Cyber Sunday: News in the Next Century.

WEDNESDAY - From 10-5, Voice of America broadcast; 1-2, Journalist of the Day: Bob Edwards of NPR.

THURSDAY - From 9-3, Close Up Foundation taping; 3-4, Journalist of the Day, Charlayne Hunter-Gault of the Public Broadcasting System.

APRIL 25: WAMU broadcasts: 10-noon, the Diane Rehm Show; noon to 2, the Derek McGinty Show; 2-3, Journalist of the Day: Derek McGinty.

APRIL 26 - 11-noon, Journalist of the Day: Deborah Mathis, Gannett News Service; 2-3:30, Author Series: David Shenk, "Data Smog."

APRIL 27 - Cyber Sunday: "Weather Online."

APRIL 30 - 10:30-noon, Women in Film and Video: "TV Ratings: Can They Work for Kids?"; Journalist of the Day: Susan Page, USA Today.

MAY 1 - 9-3, Close Up Foundation taping; 3, the Freedom Forum National Magazine Awards.

MAY 2 - 2-3, Journalist of the Day: Fidel Canon, Embassy of Colombia.

MAY 3 - 11-noon, Journalist of the Day: Laurence Jarvik, of the journal, COMINT ("Communications Intelligence'); 2-3:30, author series: Jarvik, "PBS Behind the Screen."

MAY 4 - 1-2, Journalist of the Day: Bernard Kalb, Reliable Sources, Cable News Network; 2:30-3:30, Cyber Sunday: "UK Elections and Online Magic."

MAY 7 - 11-noon, Journalist of the Day: Bernard Shaw, CNN.

MAY 8: 9-3, Close Up Foundation taping.

MAY 9: 10:30-11:30, panel discussion, "The Media and the Gulf War Syndrome;" 2-3, Journalist of the Day: Elaine Povich, Newsday.

MAY 10: 11-noon, Journalist of the Day: George Krimsky, media consultant; 2-3, author series: Krimsky and John Maxwell Hamilton, "Hold the Press: the Inside Story on Newspapers."

MAY 11: 1-2, Journalist of the Day: Steve Miller, New York Times; 2:30-3:30, Cyber Sunday: "Shoe Leather Journalism Online."

MAY 14: Journalist of the Day: Annie Groer, Washington Post.

MAY 15: 9-2, Close Up Foundation taping.

MAY 16: 10:30-11:30, panel discussion, "FCC and Children's Television Rules;" 2-3, Journalist of the Day: Kathy Kiely, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

MAY 17: 11-noon, Journalist of the Day: Roger Fidler, electronic publisher; 2-3:30, author series: Fidler, "Metamorphosis."

MAY 18: 1-2, Journalist of the Day: Lee Thornton, producer of "Both Sides with Jesse Jackson;" 2:30-3:30, Cyber Sunday: "Satellite Images in News Coverage."

MAY 21: 9:30-noon, panel discussion: "Women, Men and Media;" 1-2, Journalist of the Day: Deborah Potter, formerly of CBS and CNN.

MAY 22: 9-3, Close Up Foundation taping.

MAY 23: 2-3, Journalist of the Day: Frank Aukofer, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

MAY 24: 11-noon, Journalist of the Day: Jack Williams, USA Today; 2-3, author series: Jim Lehrer and Kate Lehrer, "White Widow" and "Out of Eden."

MAY 25: 1-2, Journalist of the Day: Eleanor Clift of the McLaughlin Group; 2:30-3:30, Cyber Sunday: "Painting with Pixels."

MAY 29: 11-noon, Journalist of the Day: Ken Auletta, New Yorker magazine; 2-3, author series: Auletta, "The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Superhighway."

MAY 30: 2-3, Journalist of the Day: David Bartlett, formerly of Radio and Television News Directios Association (RTNDA).

MAY 31: 11-noon, Journalist of the Day: Ron Sarro, Washington News Network; 2-3:30, live radio presentation: "Vintage Radio, 1920-1960."

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