Best Face Forward

At the Newseum, a troubled industry looks good under glass

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.”

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.

The museum’s location, at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street, is also symbolically resonant. Its wraparound terraces offer spectacular views of the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian museums, the National Archives, and the U.S. Capitol, which serves as a broadcast backdrop and a reminder of the press’s guardian role. On the sixth-floor terrace, an exhibit details the history of Pennsylvania Avenue—the site of presidential inaugural parades, funeral processions, mass protests, and Newspaper Row, where out-of-town correspondents once plied their trade. (Not coincidentally, their offices were situated next to another journalistic institution: Rum Row.)

The Newseum’s most striking interior space is the atrium, where visitors can gaze overhead at a news helicopter and a replica of the satellite that sent the first television signal across the continent. As they ride three massive hydraulic elevators between the concourse and sixth levels, they can survey a concrete guard tower from near Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, as well as the master control room that serves as the museum’s nerve center. Smaller side elevators, ramps, and stairways allow movement between floors. From multiple vantage points, visitors can read engraved quotations trumpeting the importance of journalism, journalists, and a free press. “Let the people know the facts,” declares President Abraham Lincoln, himself the object of considerable press vituperation, “and the country will be safe.”

The museum’s intricate layout and spatial metaphors embody the architect’s latest collaboration with Ralph Appelbaum Associates, a leading New York-based exhibition design firm. Ralph Appelbaum first gained national prominence in 1993 for his emotionally powerful use of design at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which served as a model for a whole generation of history museums. Since then, he has worked with Polshek on the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Appelbaum also designed the first, more modest Newseum, which opened in 1997 and closed in 2002 after welcoming more than 2.25 million visitors to its interactive exhibits and memorial park. Susan Bennett, the Newseum’s deputy director and vice president for marketing, notes that the original “starter museum” was an invaluable planning aid. “We had five years of practice where we got a chance to observe people and see how they reacted,” says Bennett. “One of the mantras was that we didn’t want to improve ourselves into failure. We wanted to take the things that worked there and make it bigger and better.” Many features of the Washington Newseum—a display of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, a video wall, a chronological survey of news history, and the interactive newsroom, among others—debuted in Arlington. Others, such as a World News Gallery that salutes journalistic heroism abroad, fill in perceived gaps in the museum’s storyline.

The designer makes sweeping claims for this Newseum, which he insists is not simply an interactive museum of journalism and news. “What it really is,” says Appelbaum, “is a history museum of the evolution of the American mind. It defines how we created our moral compass, [and] how we’ve come to think about our political history. It is a catalog of American thought.”

Appelbaum is unquestionably one of the great theorists of contemporary museum design. But some of his firm’s recent work, including the Clinton library and the National Constitutional Center, has struck me as overwrought: too wordy, noisy, and dense. This may not be entirely his fault. Exhibition designers are perpetually warring with curators, who generally want more content and don’t understand how antiquated “book on the wall” exhibits can seem, especially when texts overwhelm the artifacts and images on display. (Bennett says that the journalists on the Newseum’s staff did learn to write shorter.) There’s also the constant pressure to appeal to every kind of visitor: the old and the young, the “strollers” and the “streakers,” dedicated readers and theme-park aficionados.

As befits a media museum, the Newseum does employ a wide range of techniques, from interactive games to the traditional juxtaposition of artifacts with wall texts. At its best, it weds cutting-edge technology to rich content. In the Great Books Gallery, for example, rare volumes and documents relating to the freedom of the press, such as Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and a 1787 pamphlet-printing of the U.S. Constitution, are readable on interactive monitors that allow visitors to turn digital pages.

An Ethics Table in the Interactive Newsroom is also state of the art, responding to gesture and touch as teams compete to answer questions about what news is, in fact, fit to print. Each correct answer adds a story or photograph to a digital front page. In the Internet, TV, and Radio Gallery, viewers can move digitally through a fascinating library of historic radio and television clips, including pop-culture highlights like the Beatles’ ecstatic 1964 U.S. tour.

As he did at the information-rich (and wildly boosterish) Clinton library, Appelbaum uses textual highlighting to provide summaries for visitors unwilling to read long labels—a reasonable compromise between old and new. At the same time, the museum caters to those who prefer to absorb information in visual and aural formats. That means that films are shown not just in theaters but in the middle of galleries, flooding exhibits with ambient sound. (You’ll find few earphones and no audio tours, a mixed blessing.)

In this age of multitasking, iPods, and private cell-phone conversations in public places, the audio overload may not cause universal annoyance. But I found it frustrating to try to read The New York Herald’s storied account of the 1912 Titanic disaster while, behind me, Dan Aykroyd kept referring to his Saturday Night Live nemesis as “Jane, you ignorant slut.”

So how exactly will visitors experience this multimedia shrine? The overall design concept for the Newseum, Appelbaum told me, is analogous to “a Sunday newspaper at the extreme.” It’s at once linear and nonlinear, with visitors able to dip into galleries according to their interests. In fact, only the most masochistic or stoic should attempt to see the whole place in a single visit.

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.)

Appelbaum says that the museum must “do justice to [journalists’] passion. So if it works for journalists, then I think it’s really accomplished its goal.” But the Newseum is, in the end, a museum for the nonprofessional—which may be more apt than we find comfortable. After all, as the Newseum itself suggests, journalism is becoming a profession of the amateur, from the growing army of bloggers to the student who used a cell-phone camera to photograph police storming the site of the Virginia Tech massacre. Not everyone applauds these trends, of course. One interactive kiosk asks visitors whether bloggers are “important to the future of journalism.” Of those previewing the museum, only 50 percent said yes.

Still, in casting journalism as a heroic profession, the Newseum may be less intent on pandering to its corporate sponsors than on inculcating visitors with their own responsibility, as heirs to a noble tradition. Its message: You, too, can cover the news. Maybe you will. So pay attention. Be prepared. And for the sake of our democracy, please don’t screw it up. 

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Julia M. Klein is a longtime CJR contributor and a contributing book critic for The Forward. She is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.