One of Washington, DC's most popular attractions is also its most unwittingly moribund, writes Corbin Hiar ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Walking up historic Pennsylvania Avenue, one cannot help but notice the massive 74-foot-tall tablet adorning the otherwise futuristic facade of the Newseum, a seven-storey, steel and glass museum dedicated to journalism. Like a massively oversized version of one of Moses’s ten commandments, the 50-ton slab of Tennessee marble is inscribed with a similarly venerated text: the first amendment to the Constitution, which ensures the right of Americans to free speech. Under the tablet is a dynamic display of the county’s free press, featuring the front pages of daily newspapers from America and around the world.
This juxtaposition of old and new is echoed throughout the Newseum, with often impressive results. A mangled piece of the broadcast tower that once stood atop the World Trade Centre is the centrepiece of a powerful multimedia exhibit about the challenges journalists faced in covering the attacks of September 11th 2001 (pictured below). A collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs is brought to life by interviews with both the photographers and their subjects. An antique transistor radio shares display space with Apple’s iPad.
But after playing in the interactive newsroom and interacting with the dozens of touch-screens scattered throughout the museum, I was left wondering where all this technology is leading journalism. The Newseum, which is highly popular, manages to avoid many of the big and difficult questions facing the industry. Instead it is devoted to the heroic history and rosy future of journalism, told from the perspective of the big media titans who helped finance the museum. Facts that contradict this narrative are downplayed or ignored.
I brought this up with Joe Urschel, executive director of the museum. “Facts? You don’t want facts, do you?" he jokes as I sit down in his spacious office, with views of the Capitol and National Mall. Three flat-screen televisions suspended near his desk broadcast news from ESPN, MSNBC and CNN. As a longtime editor at USA Today and the Detroit Free Press before joining the Newseum, Urschel understands the way facts can get in the way of a good story.
Since the new Newseum opened in 2008, it has been dogged by questions about its corporate donors. The spacious, new $450m building in the heart of the city's museum district replaced its former cramped quarters in Rosslyn, Virginia, where the Newseum first opened in 1997. This upgrade was paid for by some of the most storied names and companies in the business: the Knights and the Annenbergs as well as the New York Times Company and the Hearst Corporation. Some have perceived the influence of these corporate donors on controversial topics covered by the museum, such as a video on the supposed "liberal bias" of the American press, which is featured without irony in the gallery sponsored by News Corp, Rupert Murdoch's conservative empire.
The corporate sponsorship is necessary. Urshell admits that the museum could never cover its operating budget with income from tickets—even at the steep price of $20 per adult. But he defends the museum’s content, noting, “every gallery that has a sponsor that you’ve seen was designed and created and virtually installed before the sponsorship was acquired. FOX—they had no influence on the content because it was already finished. It really wasn’t an issue.”
But what happens when the exhibits are updated? For example, an exhibit on “modern day partisans” includes radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken, but doesn’t yet mention that the latter is now also the junior senator from Minnesota. Details aside, how can the Newseum present this developing story about the news industry without inherently favouring the media players that support the museum? Urshell tries to alleviate such concerns. “Most of our donors come from this business, and they understand the ethical model that it operates on," he explains. "The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t like their advertisers trying to affect their coverage and I think in the same way they don’t try to affect ours. I’m sure there could be or there will be times when there are sensitivities involved. There haven’t really been any as of yet”.
The Newseum is “heavily influenced by its corporate donors,” according to Craig Aaron, the managing director of the Free Press, an American non-profit dedicated to media reform (which recently held an advocacy event at the Newseum). Although Aaron praises the Newseum for providing a space for discussions about the challenges facing journalists and internet freedom, he laments that these concerns are “not really reflected” in the exhibits themselves. “What’s happening in big corporate media and what’s happening in journalism is not the same”.
Technology has upended the business models that built the fortunes of the museum’s founding partners. As the Newseum notes in both the News Corporation News History Gallery and the Bloomberg Internet, TV, and Radio Gallery, the internet has slashed the advertising revenues of newspapers and decentralised the transmission of video around the globe. Both trends have challenged the ability of the press to effectively—and profitably—report the news. But that narrative omits a few important facts. There are three other significant threats to press freedom that are an indirect result of technological progress: the consolidation of financially weakened media outlets, legal challenges to free speech on the internet, and the increasing use of freelance writers.
The Newseum doesn’t consider any of this. Perhaps such hand-wringing over the state of journalism would make its donors uncomfortable. For example, while some may worry about the threat media consolidation poses to independent voices, this surely isn’t a concern of the Bancroft family or NBC News—both founding partners of the Newseum—the assets of which were bought up by fellow donors News Corp and Comcast, respectively. As Phillip Kennicottt noted in the Washington Post, the museum “embodies the big danger facing journalism today: Media consolidation, which diminishes First Amendment vigor not through censorship but through loss of divergent opinion and opinion that falls outside the comfortable parameters of a suit-and-tie worldview”.
Another danger is the loss of internet freedom. Comcast is leading the legal battle against “net neutrality”, whereby all internet content is delivered at the same speed. An unregulated web would allow Comcast to deliver streaming video from, say, NBC News faster than from any of its rivals or tenacious upstarts such as Talking Points Memo. Ending net neutrality may not be an outright threat to free speech, but it could make it harder for independent voices to share their views on the web.
Finally, the economic turmoil at many big media outlets has also led to a rise in the proportion of content from poorly paid interns and freelance journalists. While it may be cheaper for media companies to use freelancers, it is harder for journalists without institutional support to engage in the sort of lengthy, costly and potentially dangerous reporting that the Newseum lauds in exhibits about investigative journalism and international news.
When I ask Urschel about the lack of space afforded to these troubling developments, he downplays their significance. "That’s the story of the moment," he explains. "We’re really looking at a history line and chronology that goes way back and probably begins for us in earnest in the 1500s. So we try to put what’s happening now in context with everything else." But with no spacious galleries, no overstuffed display cases and no interactive touch-screens to address media consolidation, internet freedom or the complications of freelancing, these issues are not put in context. They are edited out altogether.
Perhaps I should have expected as much. Entertaining though it is, the Newseum is not the place to go for unbiased reporting on the past, present and future of the press. "The Newseum is a memorial to what was", says Vina Lervisit, a young freelance journalist, during a recent visit. From this perspective, the massive engraved stone slate casting shadow on the museum's facade didn't resemble a towering statement of purpose. Rather, it looked like a giant tombstone marking a bygone era in journalism, one dominated by the ailing media titans that founded Newseum.
(Corbin Hiar is a writer based in Washington, DC)
Picture credit: James P. Blair/Newseum, Sam Kittner