Last weekend I made my first trip to the Newseum, a shiny new museum dedicated to—-well, I’m still trying to figure that out. On its second floor there’s an interactive exhibit in which you can play reporter by responding to battery of ethical questions. This’ll be easy, I figured, knowing that the game was designed for kids. I can totally kick the asses of a bunch of five-year-olds at Tee Ball, so I was sure I could clean up at a journalism ethics game designed for high schoolers. Bring it, Newseum!
Question number one: During her graduation speech, the valedictorian utters a mild expletive. Do you report it?
Well, what was the context? Did she flub a line and say, “Oh, crap”? Then, no. Did she poke fun at the “crap-ass dean”? Maybe. Was she the head of the Cussing Reduction in America Party? Sure, report it.
There’s no “maybe” button at the Newseum; ethical questions demand absolute answers. I click “yes.”
No, the Newseum tells me. The swearing is irrelevant.
I mention the ethics game not because I question the judgment of its programmers. (Much.) I bring it up because it’s one of the few exhibits there that’s about the process of reporting and publishing the news. I am mindful of the fact that “the process of reporting the news” is not the kind of mission statement that gets busloads of kids and tourists pounding on your door; the place cost $450 million to build, and with a $20 admission fee you’ve got to give the folks some sizzle. And there’s a lot of that: Last Saturday I saw the Unabomber’s cabin, pieces of the torn-down Berlin Wall, a portion of an antenna from the World Trade Center. All of which would be excellent to showcase in Smithsonian Museum of Stuff Related to World Events of the Last 30 Years. What does it have to do with “news,” exactly?
When the Newseum opened in April, the museum’s board chairman, Alberto Ibargüen, told USA Today that it was intended to be “a non-scolding, non-castor-oil, fun and interactive conversation about our five basic rights (in the First Amendment).”
Nonsense. If the Newseum cared about the five freedoms—-need a refresher?—-it would have a whole lot more about religion than it currently has. Which is to say, some. A Museum of Religious Freedom in America would be a truly wonderful thing to see, but the Newseum is largely about putting journalistic artifacts in formaldehyde. I live for this stuff, so I was thrilled to take a peek at a copy of the issue of Harper’s that had Seymour Hersh’s My Lai story, a copy of the Berkeley Barb (as at least one person has pointed out, one of the few examples of the alternative press on display), and televised footage of Chicago cops busting heads at the ’68 Democratic Convention.
What’s missing is any thorough explanation of how those stories got told, and why the telling matters. The Unabomber’s cabin is currently on display, but there’s not much about the debate over publishing his manifesto. A tick-tock of news coverage of 9/11, surrounding the wrecked antenna, is a nice touch, but hardly seems to get at the herculean effort of reporting that day. It’s certainly eye-catching to see the exploded car of Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter who was killed by the blast in 1976; if only there were more than a brief mention of the reporting on the mafia that made him a target, and of the collective of reporters who continued his work as the Arizona Project. I don’t know why I need to see Daniel Pearl’s laptop, or what I might learn from looking at it for a while.
I’m glad that visitors to the Newseum learn that doing journalism often involves being in harm’s way; it’s a good thing to know. But if a lot of people don’t trust the news they’re receiving—-maybe the most important role the Newseum could play is telling people what’s involved in making a story. Nobody at the Newseum wanted to film a story meeting at New York Times? The Prince George’s Sentinel? Washington City Paper? There’s no visually engaging, interactive way to describe how a story gets published, from conception to reporting to editing to publication, in print and online? There’s a brief film about bias that screens repeatedly, but nothing I saw on any of the floors tells a 16-year-old how to identify it.
What I know about making entertaining, engaging, and informative museum displays couldn’t fill a thimble, but none of this strikes me as beyond the capabilities of a bright person in the business. And if the media want to make a case for ourselves in a building that cost almost half a billion dollars to construct, it seems disingenuous not to try harder.