Pennsylvania Avenue’s towering new monument to journalism, the Newseum, opened last week with a six-story glass and steel atrium, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, an interactive newsroom, a 4-D theater, an apartment complex, two operating broadcast studios and over 15 galleries.
If that sounds expensive, it was: total costs for the new museum are estimated at $450 million. Paid for by major donations from Bloomberg LP, the New York Times Company, News Corp, Comcast, Time Warner, ABC, NBC and others, the Newseum claims in its promotional material to have two major goals: to educate the public about the importance of the First Amendment, and to help “the media and the public gain a better understanding of each other.”
And if a museum of the media, by the media and for public relations purposes sounds a little fishy, it is. Many of the exhibits in the Newseum are relatively informative, and a few are even outstanding, but the fact that media companies sponsored a museum about themselves cannot be ignored.
The entrance to an expansive exhibit titled News History—which was sponsored by News Corp—features a video of Shepard Smith, an anchor for News Corp-owned Fox News, explaining why News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch is the greatest man in media, and his company the most impressive. Trading propaganda for a $10 million donation is difficult enough to stomach, but the exhibit’s content is even more disturbing. A timeline of major events in news history includes the founding of Fox News, saying that the network was “initially” perceived as biased, but later turned into the “most-watched channel.” The timeline also mentions the premature winner declarations during the 2000 election night coverage, but only includes screenshots of ABC, NBC, CNN and MSNBC. Maybe News Corp had the ultimate say in how it was portrayed in the exhibit, and maybe not: the visitor can’t know for sure, but subtle details like these are troubling.
A panel in the same exhibit about public distrust of the media concludes that everyone “filters” the news differently and “bias … is simply in the eye of the beholder.” Next to this, ironically enough, is a transcript of Stephen Colbert’s first use of the word “truthiness,” which satirizes the very sentiment that media emphasizes perception over facts.
Other exhibits about the history of the press and the First Amendment are slightly more educational: hundreds of original front pages dating from the late 1500s are fascinating to peruse, and the Journalist Memorial tastefully honors reporters and photographers killed in the line of duty. Exhibits on the state of press freedom around the world and First Amendment controversies here at home are thought-provoking, and more in line with what a Newseum should look like. All of the exhibits sport fancy technology and a plethora of high-definition screens, but one of the only exhibits that uses them effectively is the Ethics Center, where visitors can attempt to put together a front page on an interactive screen without doing anything ethically egregious or sensationalizing too much, while still making something people will pick up and read.
Aside from these exhibits, the Newseum contains too many nostalgic video montages (“The Stories of our Lives” plays memorable TV clips on a 90-foot screen set to The Fray’s “How to Save a Life,” and Linkin Park’s “In the End”) and comically outdated looks at “new media” (one video features Colbert interviewing a blogger, followed by a narrator saying, “all joking aside, what’s a blog?”)
The $20 entrance fee makes the Newseum a hard sell considering its proximity to the free National Mall, its uninspired exhibits and the fact that it’s sponsored by the same media corporations we seem so loath to trust. Although it doesn’t shy away from telling the story of inaccurate reporting in the past, it doesn’t critically look at contemporary concerns, like the largely unquestioning coverage leading up to the Iraq War. A video of the Newseum’s opening ceremonies playing on a gigantic screen in the atrium includes a video by Colbert (they must really like him) saying that it should have been called the Newsoleum, because Americans have outgrown their need for the truth, and the news is now “where facts go to die.” The audience doesn’t really laugh, much like the audience at the Press Corps dinner didn’t laugh when he lampooned those reporters (and the President) to their faces. Media companies know the public doesn’t trust them, and their showy attempt to clean up their image is insulting to the idea of journalism as a service to the people.