A Day at the Newseum

We just spent a wonderful day at the Newseum, the interactive museum of news that opened April 11 in Washington, D.C.

It’s a remarkable repository of mainstream media newsgathering techniques, artifacts and interpretive documentation. The one-to-many model of newsgathering–the old one-way information flow–is the foundation for the Newseum.  Much of this is news as it used to be before the digital era when news was defined, for the most part, by editors.

The many-to-one and many-to-many reality of digital media is also treated. The museum gives a nod to citizen iReports on CNN, and to bloggers and blogging, and narrative in one video I watched wrestles with the comparison between mainstream editorial processes and independent, unstructured reporting and opinion. As I reflected on it, however, I mused that it’s too recent and perhaps too multifaceted for the curators to put in perspective just now even if bloggers lay claim to bringing down Dan Rather.

I surmise part of the unique challenge a news museum faces is handling the contemporary, and not merely the historical. When news is instantly available and unfiltered, how do you capture it, organize it, and present it? While ABC’s This Week is taped at the Museum, I didn’t find discussion of the current flap raised by Scott McClellan’s charge that White House reporters didn’t aggressively challenge the Administration’s claims in the run up to the Iraq War, nor reference to such self-critique as Jessica Yellin’s contention that MSNBC senior producers left her with the impression they wanted stories consistent with the political fervor stirred by the Bush Administration.

Maybe I just missed it in the wealth of images and sounds the Newseum serves up. It’s a multimedia wonder.

In fairness, we did watch an engaging live interview with NPR Senior Correspondent Daniel Schorr in a broadcast studio at the museum in which these topics were discussed. Archive video of portions of interviews with journalists and others related to newsgathering can be found on the Newseum website under the Inside Media database. It’s not clear to me if these programs are to be available from within the museum or if they are to reside on the website.

The museum illustrates how the tools of the trade have significantly changed the practice of journalism. Displays trace the expansion from print to radio, then to television and the use of satellites and digital technologies.

Not as clearly represented is how the consolidation of media companies has influenced the craft. It’s given attention in small ways. Former ABC anchor Peter Jennings’ mousepad showing media ownership connections is displayed pictorially, for example, and a narrative refers to consolidated ownership but the subject is touched upon very lightly. Perhaps it’s even fair to call it obtuse.

Whatever the case, I came away with the impression that like a lot of others, the Newseum is ambivalent about the concept of citizen journalism and doesn’t know how to put it in perspective yet. And the contemporary debate about bottom line corporate influence upon editorial content is muted, at best.

This raises an interesting question: Can a digital, state-of-the-art, interactive museum dedicated to the community conversation that is called journalism be contemporaneous with the news (i.e., the conversation) itself?

In more than one exhibit, I was moved emotionally. The museum recognizes reporters, photographers, videographers and producers who have lost their lives in the pursuit of telling stories. Some were covering wars. Others were investigating criminal conspiracies. One was covering the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

A wall with their faces, the vehicles they used, their cameras and a blood-stained notebook brings home the life and death reality of journalism in tough places.

The car driven by Don Bolles, investigative reporter for the Arizona Republic, is displayed. It was rigged with a bomb that fatally wounded him. It’s a moving reminder that the simple act of telling a story can have deadly consequences when powerful, dangerous people don’t want the story told.

And that may be the ultimate value of the Newseum, reaching far beyond the impressive technology through which it tells the stories, it reminds us that free speech is something we must never take lightly. It demands constant attention and support. In the highest expression of their work, journalists must not bend to the bottom line of corporate owners, political bosses, crime syndicates or any other self-interested center of power.

At its best and most idealistic, journalism operates as a sacred trust. It’s not just about technologies or tools, it’s about human effort, inquisitiveness and the courage to engage in the never-ending search for truth. As corny as that may sound in our cynical age, it remains the greatest challenge for the journalist and for the preservation of a free society.

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