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.”
The Freedom Forum itself is the godchild of an archetypal media chain. It was established in 1991 by former Gannett Company chairman Allen H. Neuharth as the successor to the Gannett Foundation. It no longer has any financial link to Gannett, a corporation both envied and despised within the industry for its high profit margins and mostly mediocre newspapers. Today, the Freedom Forum describes itself as “a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people,” whose focus includes the Newseum, the First Amendment, and newsroom diversity.
Not surprisingly, the Newseum, which opened April 11, places the First Amendment front and center in its narrative, with a Five Freedoms Walkway and First Amendment Gallery. The gallery explains some of the legal challenges that have alternately curtailed and expanded the amendment’s reach, from the Jehovah’s Witnesses cases that tested the limits of religious freedom to recent struggles involving outspoken high school students and newspapers. “Free speech not only lives, it rocks!” Oprah Winfrey tells us on the gallery walls, and LL Cool J seconds the emotion in a film.
Lest we miss the point, the First Amendment also is engraved in marble on the museum’s Pennsylvania Avenue façade, an architectural tic that at least one critic has dismissed as too literal. But it is indisputably eye-catching, and it immediately identifies the museum’s purpose to passersby, many of whom linger to read the ever-changing display of newspaper front pages that line its entrance.
According to Prichard, the designers of the museum were charged with creating “an iconic building…that reflected the mission of the press.” In response, Polshek Partnership Architects of New York constructed a boxy, seven-story structure that evokes a giant television set or a computer monitor with a recessed screen.
But the firm itself prefers a different metaphor. Architect Robert Young, one of the lead designers on the project, likens the building to the pages of a newspaper. Polshek’s version of the front page is a glass-curtain wall—a “window on the world”—that represents the transparency provided by a free press. Behind it are exhibits, including a Journalists Memorial and a 9/11 Gallery, that are bathed in diffuse natural light. In the museum’s interior are “black box” spaces where more detailed exhibitions, including the News History Gallery, are housed.
The notion of glass walls as symbols of democratic transparency is not new. The British architect Norman Foster employed it in the rotunda he constructed for the German Reichstag in Berlin, where the historical symbolism had a dark edge. The Newseum’s see-through façade has a functional aspect, permitting glimpses from the street of a giant led screen in the lobby atrium.
During a mid-March visit (when the exhibits were about 80 percent complete), the forty-by-twenty-two-foot screen was televising Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama’s speech on race in America. A small rapt crowd of Newseum employees and preview tour groups had gathered in the lobby and on the walkways above to watch what seemed like history in the making. With two television studios and another “Big Screen” video news wall, the Newseum could well evolve into a communal gathering place at epic moments—much like Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, where Obama gave his speech and frequent political debates are held.