The Newseum and the First Amendment
Posted by James McPherson on June 23, 2008
The greatly expanded Newseum, which calls itself the “world’s most interactive museum” has finally re-opened. The museum about journalism has moved from an out-of-the way location in Arlington, Va., to Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. Symbolically, that’s a good place for journalists to be, or at least it was when Congress actually performed its oversight function of the White House and the press served as a watchdog over both.
You’ve seen the $450 million project if you watch “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on ABC on Sunday mornings. It is drawing mix reviews, drawing some complaints about its pricing ($20 a head) and its failure to be current enough. In an American Prospect article titled “This Old Medium,” Anabel Lee (listed as an intern, so I’m guessing she’s young) complains that the Newseum devotes too little attention to the Internet. Frankly I have little problem with that perceived neglect of a not-very-historical medium (and I write that as someone whose latest chapter in a journalism history text actually is about the Internet age). No, I’m more concerned about Lee’s other main point, when she writes:
But it fails to tell us how we got from point A to point B, from the country’s first partisan newspapers to the World Wide Web. It fails to show how journalism has evolved. And by fetishizing newspaper relics and touching on major developments like new media in only a cursory manner, the Newseum unwittingly declares the death of the newspaper. It is at best a poorly executed history museum and at worst a news mausoleum that will, at the very least, provide a beautiful resting place for that final newspaper 35 years from now.
She’s right, of course, but perhaps such a shortcoming is appropriate since journalists themselves also fail far too often “to tell us how we got from point A to point B.” Historical context usually goes lacking, a situation seemingly bound to worsen as journalism schools more and more emphasize the “tools and toys” of journalism over its history. When I was seeking academic jobs, positions that included the teaching of media history–while never as common as I’d have liked–could be found throughout the country. Now virtually every journalism opening seeks someone who can teach media technology and/or public relations (an areas that in itself would have been kept away from most journalism programs, but those programs have long since become “mass communication” departments
Even the old Newseum was a great place to take journalism students, and I’ll take a group to the new version in January. I did geta kick out of it in 1999 when one of my my students noticed that an exhibit repeated a common myth that I had previously discussed in class, and I found the facility helped students better understand the business they hoped to enter. I also bought one of my favorite neckties there.
I am a bit troubled that almost every exhibit is sponsored by a major media corporation, including News Corp, NBC, Comcast, Bloomberg, Cox, Time Warner and the New York Times. With 250,000 square feet and 6,000 journalism artifacts inside, one of the highlights of the new version is actually etched onto the outside: a 74-foot-high engraving of the First Amendment.
Too bad the media themselves don’t spend more time discussing the reasons for a free press. Back when I did my master’s thesis, I found that throughout key points in recent decades, the press has virtually ignored the First Amendment except as a feeble expression of self-defense.
Like many journalism historians, I fear the demise of newspapers. But as an American, I fear even more the demise of the First Amendment. At least we’ll be able to read it in granite, as we walk by on our way to the Drudge exhibit.