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Surrounded by clowns, balloons, and hot dogs on the Fourth of July, Miguel Alvarez leaned on his tripod looking bitter. Assigned to photograph the opening of Freedom Park for El Salvador’s La Prensa, Alvarez barely noticed the red, white, and blue Uncle Sam strutting by or the children lining up to have their faces painted. He was looking at the journalists’ memorial that bears the names of three of his dead friends.
Situated on an abandoned highway overpass in Rosslyn, Freedom Park is a Gannett-funded, $4-million concrete paean to journalism. The “park” consists of terraced, landscaped ramps running from Kent, 17th, and Lynn Streets to a plaza at the foot of Gannett’s signature silver towers. It affords views of the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, as well as of the furniture in several River Place apartments. While the park’s sponsor, the Freedom Forum, asks visitors to “respect the sanctity of the monument by not eating or drinking on the plaza,” the roar of incoming jets and the odor of garbage that wafts up from the dumpsters in the River Place parking lot don’t lend the site an air of reverence.
At one end of the plaza is a memorial to nearly 1,000 journalists who have died on assignment since 1812. A spiral wall of iridescent turquoise and pink glass panels bears their names, the papers they worked for, and where they died.
Inscribed on a nearby wall over a low fountain are quotes from six American “news pioneers” (all dead) who “broke old barriers, forged new ideas…pushed the boundaries, pressed the status quo,” according to the Forum. Billing itself as a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to “free press, free speech, and free spirit for all people,” the Freedom Forum is funded by an $800-million endowment established by Frank E. Gannett in 1935.
A terraced ramp leads from the memorial across the Wilson Boulevard overpass down to Kent Street. Here are planted the Freedom Forum’s crown jewels—eight artifacts from historic struggles for change around the globe: a toppled, headless statue of Lenin, a piece of the Berlin wall, cobblestones from the Warsaw ghetto, a reproduction of Martin Luther King Jr.’s jail-cell door. These “icons of freedom,” arranged in chronological order, lead down to a metal gate, which is locked at dark.
Rosslyn is no stranger to concrete parks, but Freedom Park seems awkward even by local standards. There’s little visual or spatial continuity. Instead, the park gets bogged down in dead ends and diluted by generic landscaping. Peppered with park benches, it’s hard to tell if this is supposed to be an aesthetic monument to freedom or just a good spot for USA Today employees to eat lunch.
Still, New York designer Ralph Appelbaum ought to be commended for making the best of what was left behind after a massive road-planning snafu. According to the Arlington Department of Public Works, the site was originally supposed to be part of the now-defunct Rosslyn Loop Road, planned in the 1960s. Construction of the Wilson Boulevard/Lynn Street ramps and bridges began in 1988 but ground to a halt in a 1990 legal dispute between the county and a contractor. During three years of subsequent litigation, the half-finished ramps sat unused and supported by scaffolding. In 1994, the county scrapped that section of the Loop Road and let the Freedom Forum turn the whole thing into a park. The Forum signed a 25-year low-rent lease last year.
Despite its colors, the memorial itself works. It’s touching and clearly the most effective element of the park. Hidden in a corner near the memorial is a computerized directory. Here are buried the stories behind the names.
Reuters photographer Dan Eldon, 22, was one of four journalists beaten and stoned to death in 1993 by a Mogadishu mob enraged over the U.N. attack on the headquarters of Somali warlord Mohammad Farrah Aidid. Don Bolles, a reporter for the Arizona Republic, was killed by a car bomb in 1976, “to silence his investigative reporting.”
It’s enough to make even a journalist on assignment stop and think. “I’m just here on a fluffy Fourth of July assignment,” said Newschannel 8 reporter Dora Hasan Mekouar, on location at the opening with a cameraman busy filming cute kid shots. “But when you see these names it kind of reminds you of what we’re really supposed to be about. I guess this is what we went to school for.”
In 1860, the editor of The Whiteman was hanged from a cottonwood tree on a summer day in Texas by locals enraged over the racial content of his paper. But a few minutes at the computer terminal reveals that today journalists don’t die in the U.S. unless their cars or planes crash.
In the third world, however, deaths of journalists for political reasons are both common and chilling. Melissa Alfaro, 23, was killed by a letter bomb that blew up in her face in 1991. The letter was addressed to the editor of Cambio, the leftist Peruvian weekly she worked for. Surit Kemaprasit was killed in Thailand in 1983 by an unknown gunman. Kemaprasit had reported on illegal land deals. Little else is known about his death.
Others were victims of malaria, yellow fever, jeep accidents, snipers, helicopter crashes, erupting volcanoes, personal feuds, friendly fire, and most of all, war.
The directory, which looks just like an ATM, is the only truly informative part of the park. The Freedom Forum doesn’t conceal the emotional and political agenda behind the bios, but nevertheless it’s too bad few tourists will take the time to ferret out the information.
The more accessible and obvious parts of the installation, however, are alarmingly self-serving. “The press is the living jury of the nation,” wrote publisher James Gordon Bennett at the beginning of the 19th century. His words are now inscribed over the park’s burbling fountain.
“That’s the most self-centered thing I’ve ever heard,” said Andrew D’Uva of Arlington at the opening-day ceremony. “The press has too much power,” added his friend Angelo Bianco of New York City. “Everything’s distorted.” “No, people give them too much power,” D’Uva replied. “You should read everything with a skeptical eye.”
Such exchanges are disappointingly rare at Freedom Park. Most visitors seem to swallow whole the glorified image of the press advanced by the Freedom Forum. “It’s good to know reporters are out there fighting for freedom and the truth,” said one tourist. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for them.”
While Freedom Forum Executive Director Peter S. Pritchard says the park is about “the struggle to report the truth,” there is almost no information about what journalists actually do. Instead, the park shores up its shallow glorification of the press by tying it to other struggles around the world. Ghetto cobblestones, a Cuban refugee’s boat, and suffragette banners are compelling artifacts. But there’s a disturbing tendency at Freedom Park to overcredit the press for historical events and to let the relatively minor sufferings of the professional press ride the coattails of pity for the millions who suffered under apartheid or the Holocaust or Castro. Besides, while a few lucky and courageous journalists do get to cover revolutionary uprisings, most earn a living covering boring town-council meetings, high-school graduations, and small-time crooks.
The park is not intended, however, to raise questions, incite debate, or “challenge the status quo,” as “news pioneers” did. It was built to awe and ultimately to reassure. Nowhere does it ask whether contemporary journalism has lived up to the lofty quotes inscribed on the walls or whether the “free” press really is. Alvarez looks at the monument and comments that he doesn’t believe the American press reported the whole truth about U.S. involvement in the three Central American civil wars he covered, but of course no one at the Freedom Forum asked him. And nowhere does the park recognize that the independent free press is being systematically gobbled up by giants like Gannett.
At the park’s opening festivities, visitors were invited to add to the exhibit by writing “What Freedom Means to Me” on giant pieces of paper taped to the walls. Most regurgitated the same meaningless platitudes and easy answers the Freedom Forum dishes out: “Freedom is finding the true part of yourself,” wrote one visitor. Another, “Freedom means caring.”
The park is built on laudable intentions. It takes courage to print what people don’t want to hear. Social change doesn’t happen without publicity. Most journalists work hard; some die. But visitors leave the park with more cheap, patriotic adoration of the press than information about what it does and how it works. We can only hope the Freedom Forum’s “Newseum,” scheduled to open adjacent to the park in April, will provide more substance and less propaganda.
In the meantime, the apparent success of Gannett’s antidote to the current wave of media-bashing says the public is in the grip of a manipulative press now more than ever. CP