And we think today’s reporters have it tough.
Picture this: To land a job, the journalistic aspirant known to history as Nellie Bly agrees to feign mental illness in order to uncover abuses at the notorious asylum for women on Blackwell’s Island. In a new “4-D” version of this familiar tale at the Newseum, an editor warns the plucky Bly of the obvious dangers involved. But how else is a Victorian woman to gain street cred as a reporter?
We see and hear what Bly would later describe in her 1887 articles for the New York World. Here are the women tied together at the waist like a prison work gang or forced to sit all day on straight-back wooden benches; the unfeeling attendants laughing at their charges and confiscating Bly’s notebook; a well-spoken inmate who attests to her sanity, but may well be driven mad by the asylum regime.
After pushing away a plate of inedible food and submitting to an icy bath, Bly is thrust back into her tiny cell. A rat scurries across the floor and leaps into bed beside her. Horrified, she flicks it in our direction. Yikes! Fur seems to brush the backs of our legs. How on earth, we wonder, did they do that?
It would probably be unfair to suggest that this frightening intimacy with a rodent is the emotional highlight of the Newseum experience. But it is certainly among this new institution’s most memorable thrills. More than six years in the making, this $450 million, 250,000-square-foot behemoth bills itself as “the world’s most interactive museum”—a whiz-bang homage to a profession still wrestling with the perils and promise of new media. As old-line journalism flounders, the Newseum salutes its past. But does it also augur its future?
At the least, this ambitious expansion of the first Newseum (in Arlington, Virginia) mostly delivers on its technological boasts, of which the movie I-Witness: A 4-D Time Travel Adventure is perhaps the most vivid exemplar. According to the narrator, the film’s aim is to help us merge with “the digital news stream,” which floats toward us in bubbles framing historical scenes. With the help of 3-D glasses, the movie takes us not just to the asylum, but to the front lines of the Battle of Lexington with the Revolutionary War correspondent Isaiah Thomas, and to the rooftops of London with Edward R. Murrow, whose live broadcasts during Nazi air raids make radio history. As war rages, our seats shake, immersing us in the fray. At once sensationalistic and celebratory, the film underlines one of the museum’s central tropes: the journalist as hero.
Theme-park dazzle will surely be integral to the Newseum’s bid to lure tourists (at $20 a head) from the nearby National Mall museums. Given the prevalence of cynicism about the news media, how the public will respond to the museum’s resolutely upbeat narrative is less certain. “Everyone now considers themselves a press critic,” notes Joe Urschel, the Newseum’s executive director and senior vice president.
The story that the Newseum tells is not completely sanitized; individual blunders, from dewey beats truman to Jayson Blair, do get some play. But just as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, with its close ties to the military, touts the wonders of flight, and the National Museum of the American Indian offers a mostly uncritical perspective on the tribes who help curate it, the Freedom Forum’s Newseum reflects what we, on our sunniest days, think of ourselves.
Not that we’re having many sunny days, given the crescendo of buyouts, layoffs, and other cutbacks, not to mention shareholder uprisings and general corporate tumult. In view of all these economic (not to mention existential) woes, the Newseum’s tone is remarkably sanguine. Credit the museum with taking a longer view—placing its faith in the seemingly eternal hankering for news and the reassuring penumbra of the First Amendment, as well as in the new idea of the “citizen journalist.”
Some of the museum’s optimism is no doubt embedded in its very genes. The Newseum’s president, Peter S. Prichard, is the former editor-in-chief of USA Today, a notable success story and a publication known both for its bright graphics and generally rosy outlook. The museum’s founding partners, whose names adorn many of its fourteen galleries and fifteen theaters, include the remaining titans of the industry: The New York Times (in tandem with its ruling dynasty, the Ochs-Sulzberger Family), Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Cox Enterprises, Hearst Corporation, ABC and NBC News, Time Warner, and so on. The museum does mention the implosion of Knight Ridder and the uncertain future of the industry. But this is not the place to find a systemic critique of the corporate short-sightedness and managerial ineptitude that have led to what we reporters call the “death spiral.”