The News Museum in Arlington, Va. Is No Scoop

by Louise Sheldon
       Sometimes one wonders whether this country doesn’t have too many museums!

       My husband and I recently visited the “Newseum” at 1101 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington.

Accurate, conscientious reporting is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. This disappointing museum does not convey this essential message.

       Having been a news reporter and foreign correspondent for over 20 years, I was definitely interested.

       The spacious ground floor of this palatial edifice is a paradise for kids, given over to the sale of snack foods and what must constitute “newsouvenirs”—mugs, teeshirts and baseball caps brightly inscribed with the Newseum logo, typical of tourist paraphernalia available all over D.C. Surely this is wasted space.

       Up a winding stair we followed the museum’s “suggested tour” through an exhibit of artifacts from news history, including African drums, Indian smoke signals and ancient Egyptian letters inscribed on stone in hieroglyphics. My husband was delighted by a complete linotype machine just like the one he used to operate as a teen-ager. Many of the objects are imaginatively displayed. in glass cases and make this the most interesting and thought-provoking portion of the museum. So far so good for this floor.

       In a long gallery continuing the exhibit, copies of colonial gazettes with minute type deserve attention but are rather hard to read. They are followed by a lengthy display of front-page stories of history-making events taken from newspapers around the country, including World Wars I and 11, the Atom Bomb, Lindberg’s Atlantic crossing, etc Again, how many visitors are going to read beyond the headlines?

       Here, I thought, was a great opportunity to show the feats of photojournalism in bringing pictorial news to the public in the era before television. I expected to see blowups of photographs by Alfred Eisenstadt, David Douglas Duncan, the Capa brothers and others who shot the major events of World War II as well as the decades before and after. As museum visitors rarely stop to read entire articles, this would seem to me to be the ideal showplace for photography, but we found scant attention devoted to any magazines aside from the display of various covers.

       It seems that the “Freedom Forum” (Does the name sound a pompous, big-brother note?), which funds the Newseum, is successor to the Gannett Foundation established in 1935 by Frank E. Gannett. Perhaps Mr. Gannett, who started a chain of newspapers around the country, didn’t appreciate media rivals like Henry Luce.

Curious Omissions

       Magazines all over the world, like Paris Match and Le Point in France, Der Spiegel in Germany, and countless others in Latin America and Asia, were designed to emulate the format and newsgathering techniques of Luce’s Time and Life. How about Newsweek, Look and the long-departed and the wildly popular Saturday Evening Post? Even the venerable National Geographic and Smithsonian bring news of other kinds to their devoted readerships.

“Infotainment” Is Not News

       The rest of this large museum, well over half, is devoted to today’s television. There’s a mind-boggling, never-ending wall awash with overlapping multiscreen programs that makes one’s head spin, and a broadcast studio where a typically unedifying game show similar to “How to be a Millionaire,” with gleeful visitors learning how to do it, was being conducted the day we were there.

       Unfortunately we missed an introductory 15-minute video due to the number of people in the museum, but what we had hoped to find were exhibits explaining how the great machine of today’s media came into existence—how the use of telephone, telegram, telex, radio and TV have been combined to help communicate news in the recent past. For example, how was the story of man’s first visit to the moon conveyed to the world?

       Young people need to be made aware that this is an immense process for which specific training in many skills for every different aspect of journalism is required. Are the two or three years of journalism courses offered in colleges and universities sufficient to equip one for a career as a reporter, writer, editor or broadcaster? What are the differences between these jobs?

       Accurate, conscientious reporting, often involving combatting walls of indifference and hostility to the spread of factual information, is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. The fundamental and absolutely necessary ability and determination to report news fairly and honestly is not readily found in every would-be journalist. That such qualities and such idealism are required of great newsmen and women should be emphasized and made clear, though they are not in this museum.

       In the future the Newseum is slated to move to larger quarters in Washington. We hope that the new center will fill in some obvious gaps, stick to newsgathering rather than slick “Infotainment,” and reduce its homage to television game shows and anchormen.

Needed: Critical Thinking

       How about establishing some kind of criteria to help kids learn how to distinguish ‘insightful, objective reporting from biased commentary—such as when commentator Cokie Roberts on PBS, emulating many other “talking heads” just before the Democratic Convention, gave her opinion that this was going to be the dullest election imaginable.

       Was this remark intended to encourage people to follow the news, analyze the issues and go out and vote? Interestingly, the impasse in the current election is making more students and voters across the country aware of the crucial importance of the process of electing the president than all the efforts of the combined media during the campaign.

       As for television coverage of the news, how about the “talking heads” who falsely announced a winner on three different occasions on election night? Maybe the Newseum should create an exhibit of the media’s colossal bloopers, particularly those made by the branch that brings instantaneous news to millions delivered by handsome announcers who have never gone out on assignment to report the news?

       Children who aspire to be journalists deserve a more enlightened venue than this shallow attempt to reveal the broad spectrum of what news gathering is all about.

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This story was published on January 3, 2001.