Visitors enter through the Great Hall of News, where the day’s headlines rush by on an electronic zipper. After that prologue, the main narrative begins on the concourse level with an orientation film, What’s News, an elegant montage of still photos and video whose themes are taken up later in the Early News Gallery. After a quick look at a satellite truck and an exhibition on the Berlin Wall—which credits the free flow of information for the wall’s demise—visitors proceed to the sixth floor and work their way downstairs and forward in time.
Along the way, they’ll encounter another Appelbaum signature: the large, emotionally charged artifact. Besides graffiti-covered sections of the Berlin Wall, the museum boasts an armored Chevrolet truck pocked by bullets and shrapnel from fighting in the Balkans, and the twisted wreckage of a television antenna salvaged from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. In the World News Gallery, the laptop and passport of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, kidnapped and slain while reporting on terrorism in Pakistan, will no doubt provoke a shiver or two.
The Newseum’s collection includes more than six thousand other artifacts, exclusive of newspapers and photographs. Among those displayed are the door of the Democratic headquarters penetrated by burglars during the 1972 Watergate break-in, Ana Marie Cox’s sequined slippers (worn while she wrote her political blog Wonkette), and a trs-80 RadioShack computer, a primitive portable nicknamed the “Trash-80” that many of us toted to political conventions and national disasters in the 1980s. (By the time mine broke down, the warehouse no longer had replacement parts.)
The News History Gallery, a sort of museum-within-a-museum, is the home of many of these curiosities. At its center is a timeline of newspaper history, focusing mostly (but not exclusively) on the United States. The timeline is complemented by examples from the extraordinary collection of thirty thousand historic newspapers acquired in 2001 from Eric C. Caren and Stephen A. Goldman. Visitors must pull out drawers to see them, an old-fashioned sort of interactivity designed to shield these rarities from light.
Along the sides of the gallery, the exhibition delves more deeply into the transformation of newsgathering and dissemination. One video plays Watergate highlights; another discusses women’s battles against discrimination (as though they’ve been won); a third shows the gradual merger of news and entertainment, from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to Stephen Colbert. Interactive stations feature games and biographies of major figures in the field, and five small theaters show films on such subjects as the history of newsreels, government censorship in Federalist-era America, and the problem of media bias.
Families will likely prefer to spend time in the Interactive Newsroom and its Ethics Center—but not just families. During my visit, members of a Coast Guard tour group took turns wielding microphones and reading television scripts, then delightedly watching their own videotaped performances on TV monitors. Nearby, dozens of interactive stations offer news quizzes and sophisticated simulations designed to test visitors’ skills at photography and reporting. “Dude, you’re a reporter,” we’re told, in case encouragement is needed.
Through all of this, journalists come out looking pretty good. One particularly moving evocation of journalistic heroism is a film devoted to press coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Interviews with reporters, cameramen, and photographers are intercut with extraordinarily intimate footage of the collapsing Twin Towers. Unlike freelance photographer Bill Biggart, whose ruined cameras and charred press card are on display, these journalists survived to bear witness. They admit to strong emotions, even tears. We see a rare shot of a TV reporter hugging an interview subject. The message is clear and salutary: we’re not all coolly objective automatons or celebrity-hounding paparazzi.
Other brave journalists, killed in the line of duty or for their work, are saluted in the Journalists Memorial. Appelbaum acknowledges his debt to Maya Lin, whose Vietnam Veterans Memorial is echoed by this curving wall of smoky white glass, etched with the names of martyred journalists. Light streams in, illuminating the panels, and benches allow for contemplation. Interactive kiosks provide biographies. And a quote from Hillary Clinton provides the epitaph: “The women and men of this memorial are truly democracy’s heroes.”
There is also a quieter counternarrative at the Newseum, an acknowledgment of our capacity for error. Mistakes—the products of human weakness, blind ambition, and perhaps the pressures of the twenty-four-hour news cycle—are embodied in mentions of fabulists, from Janet Cooke to USA Today’s Jack Kelley, as well as their historical forerunners. In a wry move, the restroom walls are adorned with flubbed headlines from CJR’s “The Lower Case.” Here, even nature’s call is a learning opportunity. (A “Lower Case” book, co-published by CJR and the Freedom Forum, will be sold in the Newseum gift shop.)