One of Washington, DC’s most popular attractions is also its most unwittingly moribund
Walking up historic Pennsylvania Avenue, one cannot help but notice the massive 74-foot-tall tablet adorning the otherwise futuristic facade of the Newseum, a seven-storey, steel and glass museum dedicated to journalism. Like a massively oversized version of one of Moses’s ten commandments, the 50-ton slab of Tennessee marble is inscribed with a similarly venerated text: the first amendment to the Constitution, which ensures the right of Americans to free speech. Under the tablet is a dynamic display of the county’s free press, featuring the front pages of daily newspapers from America and around the world.
This juxtaposition of old and new is echoed throughout the Newseum, with often impressive results. A mangled piece of the broadcast tower that once stood atop the World Trade Centre is the centrepiece of a powerful multimedia exhibit about the challenges journalists faced in covering the attacks of September 11th 2001 (pictured below). A collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs is brought to life by interviews with both the photographers and their subjects. An antique transistor radio shares display space with Apple’s iPad.
But after playing in the interactive newsroom and interacting with the dozens of touch-screens scattered throughout the museum, I was left wondering where all this technology is leading journalism. The Newseum, which is highly popular, manages to avoid many of the big and difficult questions facing the industry. Instead it is devoted to the heroic history and rosy future of journalism, told from the perspective of the big media titans who helped finance the museum. Facts that contradict this narrative are downplayed or ignored.
I brought this up with Joe Urschel, executive director of the museum. “Facts? You don’t want facts, do you?” he jokes as I sit down in his spacious office, with views of the Capitol and National Mall. Three flat-screen televisions suspended near his desk broadcast news from ESPN, MSNBC and CNN. As a longtime editor at USA Today and the Detroit Free Press before joining the Newseum, Urschel understands the way facts can get in the way of a good story.
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Photo credit: James P. Blair/Newseum