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It felt important to visit the Newseum 10 years ago, when I was still in journalism school. The Newseum — then and up until recently, when it shut down at the end of 2019 — housed a chunk of the Berlin Wall, preserved front pages of a constellation of newspapers since the dawn of the printing press, and even displayed a monumental chunk of the broadcast tower from the top of the World Trade Center, accompanied by the outraged U.S. press coverage of the terror attacks on 9/11.
I ate all of this up as a college student, energized by the power of the free press and inspired by my fellow reporters throughout history. Summer of ’09 was a very different time. Barack Obama manned the Resolute desk, the Great Recession had just ended, and while the news business was fighting for its survival, every journalist I knew still believed great reporting would always win.
Ten years later, the delusory nature of that kind of thinking doesn’t look any more obvious than in hagiographic menageries like the Newseum. A brainchild of Al Neuharth (founder of USA Today), via his Freedom Forum nonprofit, the Newseum took a few different forms before its latest and best-known iteration as a doomed $450 million, seven-level, 250,000-square-foot institution on Pennsylvania Avenue. A short distance from it sits DC’s Trump International Hotel, a five-minute walk away and visible from the Newseum’s terrace (the FBI building sits between them). The Newseum engraved its goals of celebrating the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press when it stuck the First Amendment on its facade. Like the Newseum’s contents, that too has been (or will soon be) removed.
The Newseum’s final exhibitions were remarkable for how much they withheld from the public that paid $25 a pop to, presumably, get a comprehensive view of the media or at least a window into journalists’ day-to-day work. In a series of exhibitions paid for by corporations and the mega-rich, its curation elided many of the messy, difficult nuances of newsgathering in favor of what someone’s approximation of “crowd-pleasing” must be.
Inside Today’s FBI was one of the more popular exhibitions I walked through, mostly a hodgepodge of unrelated and discordant FBI ephemera from various cases that made national or international headlines in the last quarter-century. Your guide? Large-scale magazine headlines laid over black backgrounds: “STOPPING THE NEXT ONE” from The New York Times Magazine on terror attacks, “THE DARK WEB” from Newsweek on the cybercrime “epidemic.” Then there’s the artifacts. Here’s the Unabomber’s Cabin, please don’t step inside. That’s the car abandoned at Dulles Airport by 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al Hamzi and Khalid al Mihdhar.
And, here, watch the last Western-media interview with Osama bin Laden, conducted by former ABC News (they sponsored the exhibition, by the way) correspondent, former FBI official, and current NYPD employee John Miller. In all of the exhibition’s commentary around the bin Laden footage, the sources interviewed were either current or former agents like Miller, speaking in clipped and official cadences.
What you didn’t find was much critical analysis of the news media’s relationship to covering either the FBI or any other federal agencies. One mealy-mouthed display, siloed off toward the end of the exhibition, framed the totality of aggressive coverage of the agency as “FBI TACTICS UNDER FIRE” and discussed NBC journalist Carl Stern’s scoop on COINTELPRO, the secret and illegal program that targeted, surveilled, and infiltrated civil rights groups, among others, in the 20th century. No mention was made of how a burglary by whistleblowers was the only reason Stern had anything to report and the only reason average folks now know about the program.
And here’s where many of the Newseum’s exhibitions fell apart. Inside Today’s FBI presented a version of history that felt compromised since it failed to adhere to basic journalistic standards like getting at the truth, instead of just getting the FBI’s side of the story. Rarely is the truth condensable to headlines and blurbs, all next to the Unabomber’s house. As a result, the FBI exhibition read less like the journalism it was supposed to champion and more like an endorsement of the intelligence community serious journalists know to be skeptical of. I wanted to give the Newseum a pass on this, but it crystallized when I saw racks full of FBI T-shirts in its gift shop. “The FBI is good, tough, saves your life every day, and takes flak sometimes” probably moves T-shirts better than “journalists spend hours obsessing over dead ends and then something lands in their lap and they actually think twice about those good tough guys.”
It wasn’t really about news or journalism, but about mythmaking. There was plenty elsewhere that didn’t have anything to do with the news or journalism. Display cards with blurbs about the dogs owned by various U.S. Presidents; a room dedicated to athletes speaking out on social justice issues so watered down that Wikipedia seems spicier; and a sign that says “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” at the “Freedom to Petition” exhibit. The endowed Bloomberg Internet, TV and Radio Gallery barely touched on blogs or modern digital media, despite being a timeline array of video screens, photographs, and history of the news from the early days of radio, through the age of television and the internet. The News Corporation News History Gallery had a Ronald Reagan quote blown up on its wall and barely a mention of general-interest alternative weekly newspapers — just a copy of an issue of the Village Voice from 1993 with a cannabis leaf on it and the headline “keep dope alive.” (Ironically the gallery was probably the most fascinating, historically potent space in the building, since you could pull out dozens upon dozens of preserved newspapers and read their front pages under protected glass.)
It wasn’t all a disaster. Seriously Funny: From the Desk of Jon Stewart offered the intellectual antipode of the FBI exhibition, but it was just as surface-level. The Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery was a genuinely harrowing, thrilling, or hysterically funny dark room to sit or stand in, depending on where you happened to be standing or sitting and which image of documentary video might be playing. (You could thank Nikon for it.) The Newseum Journalists Memorial to reporters who have been killed on the job was a moving and thought-provoking comment on the global suppression of speech. The NBC News Interactive Newsroom was a light counterbalance to that, probably the only section of this interactive museum where someone who wants to be a reporter could see what’s like to get on camera and do what many journalists love to do on camera: dick around! The 9/11 Gallery (“sponsored by Comcast”) was still moving for me as a lifelong New Yorker but, like the Berlin Wall exhibit and much of the museum, just by virtue of its subject matter, felt perpetually dated and devoid of context for the present we inhabit.
And that’s perhaps the crux of the Newseum’s failure as both an institution and as a shrine to a reflexively skeptical profession. The Newseum watered down its history so thoroughly that a card in the News History Gallery detailing “The Rise of Fake News” failed to mention that President Donald J. Trump popularized and weaponized that term against journalists. It was just one of many lies of omission anyone who’s been paying attention could readily call out at the Newseum.
I still have a fridge magnet from the Newseum from years ago, when I was a lot more starry-eyed about my profession and the forces working to erode the freedoms — speech, press, citizenship, and more — that many of us enjoy in the United States. It’s a quote credited to Phil Graham, and I look at it every day: “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”
The Newseum should have polished the draft.
The Newseum closed to the public on December 31, 2019.