James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘Newseum’

Local media zombies: Producing news fit for a museum

Posted by James McPherson on April 11, 2009

However much marijuana Woody Harrelson may have just smoked, I don’t believe his claim that he mistook a photographer for a zombie. On the other hand, if he were talking about dying local news organizations–which stumble on zombie-like as if they were already dead–Harrelson might have a case.

A few hours from now I’ll take part in a panel discussion about “the changing media landscape in the Inland Empire.” The 3 p.m. panel will be sponsored by (and held at) Auntie’s Books, the best independent bookstore in the Inland Northwest, and is one of many events during this year’s Eastern Washington University Get Lit! literary festival.

For today’s forum I’ll join editors from our local daily and weekly, someone from our independent community-owned radio station, and a local magazine editor. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know I won’t be an optimistic voice on the panel.

Coincidentally, today happens to be the one-year anniversary of the re-opening of the Newseum, called “the world’s most interactive museum.” Despite some deserved criticism, the “news museum” had a successful first year. The Newseum may have been about the only success associated with news in the past year, and even it suffered staff cuts. On the other hand, as noted with yesterday’s post, who hasn’t? One of my biggest criticisms of the museum is that the $20 admission price is too high–providing yet another barrier between the reasons for a free press and the people who would most benefit from robust news media.

Because the media have done such a poor job of making a case for themselves, and for the First Amendment, most Americans don’t care if the media zombies disappear. Those who listen to talk radio or Fox News may even cheer the deaths–failing to recognize that those zombies may be all that stands between democracy and even more dangerous monsters.

Next day update: The panel got a good turnout and the time flew by, with thoughtful participation from the audience. It included one of my current students, two former students, one of my favorite grad school professors, assorted community activists, a few colorful and passionate locals (including one who kept referring to the Inlander as “the Islander”) and academics and students from at least five area colleges–the kind of mix that makes Spokane a far more interesting city than I imagined before arriving here nine years ago.

Thanks to any of you who participated (even if by just showing up), to the Spokesman-Review’s Ryan Pitts for moderating (and for gracefully handling the insults–some deserved, some not–aimed at his employer), and especially to Jasmine Davey at Auntie’s and Get Lit! coordinator Dani Ringwald for putting it all together.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

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.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »