The smell of a fireplace. Not typically the first thought to roll through your head when thinking about Washington, D.C., but the smell of burning wood permeates this snow-infested city. My wife and I decided to head down to the nation’s capital for President’s week (yes, it’s a week when you work for NYC’s Board of Education or when you own your own business) and of course, there happens to be more snow here than at home. And another storm is supposed to hit this evening. But the smell. Fireplaces evoke many images, but for me, for some reason, as we explored DC, the smell made me think of the history of DC.
Of course, the history of DC is the history of our nation. The city is at once a shrine and mausoleum of America and also the thriving residence of democracy where visitors can see both simultaneously. Whether at a museum like the National Archives or walking through the Rotunda of the Capitol Building, Americans – or at the very least, me – cannot feel an overwhelmingly surge of patriotism.
Before we hit the biggies: the White House, the Lincoln/Jefferson Memorials, the Supreme Court, the Capitol, the National Archives or even the Spy Museum, we wanted to see the Newseum. Since a) my academic background is in media studies and b) my professional experience deals with the media every day, it’s not so surprising that this was where I steered us.
By definition, a museum is history. We store artifacts from the past to help us paint a picture of the present. The Newseum is a museum about the history of the media in the US (there are some small artifacts of the history of the media outside the US, like a page from Guttenburg’s Bible) and most importantly, a museum dedicated to the most important tenet of a free nation: the right to free speech, to practice any religion, to petition the government, to assemble and have a free press. When you hit the world’s media wall, you get a sense of just how rare the free press is.
But as I walked through the exhibits, two contradictory themes kept running through my head: this is a sad museum and a hopeful one. Two concepts to think about: 1) news is sad because of what we need to learn and 2) future iterations of the press will help make the world a better place.
If there were axioms of media, a key one would be: If it bleeds, it leads. And this is shown time and again throughout the museum. Major events – especially recorded events – tend to be on the negative side, mainly because we the viewer like to watch. Sick as it seems, a free press enables the audience to be voyeuristic.
Think of the major news events in your lifetime. How many were positive? Not many. My parents’ generation knows exactly where they were when Kennedy was shot; my generation knows exactly where they were when 2 planes flew into our most impressive buildings (I’ll get to the 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum shortly). True, we can remember where we were when our nation elected its first black president or when a bunch of young hockey players beat a Goliath. But those happy, positive news items are few and far between. We focus on death and destruction because, simply, we’re human. We see images of Haiti, of Sudan, of Somalia, of Nazi Poland, of hurricane/tornado/drought/flood ravaged places and we ache. The media shows us these stories not because they want to, but because we need to see them to understand the world around us. This is what hit me as I walked around the Newseum: sadness. Sadness at headlines, sadness at Pulitzer photos, sadness of our history.
But this sadness turned to hope as I left the building, a hope that is characterized by the fundamental American belief that the ability to speak ones mind and to openly criticize our elected officials is tantamount to our nation’s evolution. A free press must be a cornerstone in a democracy and the Newseum really plays its part in delivering that message.
We’ve moved from a print-based society to a pictorial society many years ago, but the idea of a broadcast medium evolving into a reciprocated medium is what’s shaking the foundations of the business side of the media. We cannot forget that with a free press, comes free enterprise – which is also a hopeful ideal of the museum: that with the changing guard of media, everyone and anyone can have a stake; not just the rich and powerful.
While the museum was a surprisingly emotional one for me, there were a few things I would have done differently. I would have segmented by technology. I would have had a floor dedicated to the evolution of print using all types of periodicals, not just newspapers, but magazines, pamphlets, etc. I would have a floor dedicated to radio and a floor dedicated to TV. I would also have put in a floor focusing on new media and the future of the industry. Of course, since I’m a communications person, I would have some recognition of the symbiotic relationship between media and PR; we play an important role in creating (and often times preventing) news.
I loved the exhibits – the FBI and Media was a sobering discovery of how much that organization shaped and permeated the 20th century. The Berlin Wall exhibit was pretty interesting as they brought in slabs of the wall and a “Death Tower.” And of course, the hall of records, with actual newspapers spanning the nation’s history was absolutely incredible. However, the 9/11 exhibit hit me in a way I wasn’t prepared for. Seeing the mangled radio antenna surrounded by hundreds of front pages from around the world on 9/12 made me cry. And then, perhaps naively, I walked into the short video and the tears just kept flowing. Oddly, next to the 9/11 exhibit was an exhibit showing Tim Russert’s office. Very weird juxtaposition, but as you walk down the corridor to a map showing which nations in the world had a free press, a nominally free press or a not-free press, you get the opportunity to recover from the 9/11 exhibit.
We spent a little under 4 hours at the museum and could have spent another 4 hours investigating and playing with the interactive games. There is so much to learn, to see, to remember, to feel that if you really want to hold up a mirror to American society, this is the museum for you