Defending the Newseum

It saddens me that most of what I’ve heard about the new Newseum — from fellow journalists, no less — is negative.

Jon Fine of Business Week calls it an “eerie temple of yesterday’s news” and accuses it of being a fitting monument to journalistic “smugness, elitism, and undue self-importance,” yet another example of the media lecturing to the public at the very time when it should be listening.

I could not disagree more.

Of course, I haven’t seen the new Newseum yet, although I did visit the old one before it closed. And I will stipulate that a $20 entrance fee is pretty unfortunate. But I think the time is as right as any to celebrate journalistic achievements.

Yes, journalism has its share of elitists, but in my view, more than its share of insecure self-flagellators. I don’t remember a hue and cry about the arrogance of the espionage community when the International Spy Museum came to Washington, ditto for astronauts and pilots whose deeds are lauded in the Air & Space Museum. Journalism has played every bit as key of a role in this nation’s history and political and cultural life as all of the other institutions and people that are memorialized on the DC Mall and its environs. Why is it so horrible to honor and explain that role? Why is it such a bad idea to TELL PEOPLE WHY JOURNALISM MATTERS? Why is that mutually exclusive with humility, with the ability to admit our mistakes, with forging a more interactive and richer relationship with the public in the future?

Every profession has its share of jerks and its share of problems. Journalism is in the unique position of being able to turn its own megaphone onto itself. I wholeheartedly applaud that ability to be publicly self-critical. What I don’t like is that any effort to say, hey, we do some good things, too is immediately labeled as arrogance.

I’m reading a history of the Milwaukee Journal written by Robert Wells (more on that later), and what strikes me is how newspapers of the late 19th and early 20th century were completely unabashed about giving themselves mad props. It was a competitive business back then and selling a newspaper was viewed much like trying to convince people to buy Coke over Pepsi today. Newspapers staged crazy promotions like having a man dressed as a human fly scale the building and gave new subscribers free sets of silverware. Their headlines called attention to their every scoop and the pages dripped with self-congratulations. In some ways, I think it’s almost MORE elitist to just sit back and assume that people will just kind of realize on their own that journalism is important, as though somehow we are too good to have to work hard to sell this product. Not to mention that democracy itself is not at stake when you are talking about soft drink sales.



Filed under Standing Up for Journalism, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Defending the Newseum

  1. Justin Myers

    (Disclaimer: My knowledge of/experience with the Newseum comes from the one time I was in DC, and the Freedom Forum (its parent organization) was paying for that entire trip as part of a scholarship deal.)

    I think your post illustrates the main point the article’s author seems to have missed; namely, the idea that it’s good for people to know both the complexity of the business and how far it’s come.

    The author also criticizes the building’s location near the Capitol, but the explanation I always heard was that legislators would therefore almost _have_ to see it (and the large engraved First Amendment on the front) on their way in to work.

    I think places like this definitely mean different things to different people; instead of seeing journalists’ reactions to a monument to our own craft, I’d be interested in seeing visitors’ reactions to a field about which they might not be as aware.

  2. Jonathan Groves

    I have no problem with creating a museum dedicated to the fine craft of journalism.

    My beef is the $20 entry fee. If you want to spread the gospel, you gotta get them in the door.

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