Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Newseum: One Journalism Graduate's Review

I've never visited a museum in which I had more knowledge about its subject matter than the average person. I don't know much geology and paleontology at the Natural History Museum, I dropped art history so I'm at a loss at the National Gallery, and I've never committed espionage so I'm unfamiliar with the Spy Museum's gadgets.

This was true until my visit to the Newseum. As a reformed, no longer in the business, journalism degree recipient from the University of Maryland, I couldn't wait to see how the building would be filled with the objects, themes, and principles of a dying profession. Worst case scenario if the museum disappointed, I'd at least have a good view of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The display of the day's papers from around the country stop many people who fail to realize the papers are all online anyway.

The Newseum has a prime spot along Pennsylvania Avenue across the street from a few Smithsonians and a good fairway drive to the Capitol. It's glass facade doesn't fit DC's marble and granite style, but who isn't a fan of glass walls? Moved from its first home in Rosslyn, the Newseum boasts some 250,000 square feet with 15 theaters, and many galleries. It's the be all end all of journalism in its most spectacular, come hither and ignore the ugly side of the profession way.

The lobby opens to the top floor and offers enough space for a traffic helicopter, satellite, and gigantic video screen.

The ground floor houses the eating area, rotating exhibits, several theaters, and pieces of the Berlin wall. That's right, the Berlin Wall. Something better suited for a history museum is in the Newseum, along with a watch tower. The curators tried to put a journalistic spin on things, but I wasn't convinced. The massive stone slabs are off in a corner, on the other side of express elevators. It came across as an afterthought exhibit suited for the basement because other floors that discuss actual journalism couldn't support their massive, empty weight.

Help me out here, what does the Berlin Wall have to do with writing stories? It's called a gimmick.

The two exhibits available in the rotating space are photographs by SI's Walter Looss and the FBI's top news stories in its first 100 years. The sports pictures were stunning as were the stories behind how Looss managed to luck into being in the right place. The FBI section was really the history of the FBI's biggest stories with examples of articles about the criminals. I didn't think the journalism angle for this was strong. The fact that the Post printed drawings of the DC Sniper's van doesn't warrant a place in a journalism museum.

Seeing the Unabomber's shed for a house doesn't teach journalism. It just teaches us that he was a bad at building shelves.

The rest of the bottom floor offered theaters showing vignettes on what makes the news, sports journalism history, and a look at Walter Cronkite's career. I walked out of the 25-minute sports movie after 8 minutes because it didn't offer anything new. Anyone who has watched sports documentaries and countless hours of ESPN will also be bored. I was looking for more technical information on sports journalism such as how sporting events are produced, how stories are filed on deadline, what a typical team beat reporter goes through each game, and how your local sports newscast has changed because of ESPN.

Instead you're treated to a glossy review of sports journalism history hosted by Ahmad Rashad. Really Newseum? The best you could get was Ahmad Rashad? How does he represent sports journalism? The piece shows interviews with Bob Costas, how about using him? Rashad has never asked a cognitive question in his life and whose claim to fame is being buddy-buddy with Michael Jordan during halftime interviews in the 1990s. A big miss here.

My faith in the Newseum was restored after a forgetful concourse floor.

From the first floor up the Newseum begins to correct itself. An outstanding gallery of Pulitzer Prize photography is on display. These jawdropping shots stopped me in my tracks. A well-designed theater inside of the gallery was also interesting. The pictures were terrifying, exciting, haunting, and wonderful.

The Newseum knows who bankrolled its existence so it made no mention of how news pushes the views of it's conglomerate parent companies.

My first stop on the second floor was the ethics interactive exhibit. Believe it or not, there used to be ethics that journalists followed when researching, writing, and publishing stories. I decided to put my thousands of dollars in UMD journalism training to the test and "battled" a family of four to see who can answer ethical questions quicker to fill a front page. My dear parents, fear not, for I did learn something at school and won handily; getting every question right.

See? I did learn something at that cow college.

A favorite J-school teacher of mine teaching all visitors about ethics.

The floor also offered a suite of cameras for visitors to act as TV reporters. Only one person was doing his live shot when I passed by. I declined an offer to try my hand having done it far too often as an undergrad. The staff member told the visitor that the teleprompter moves at either an adult or child rate. It's too bad the staffer couldn't move the teleprompter as the person spoke because having predefined rates of display couldn't be more wrong. The teleprompter moves as the talent speaks, not the other way around.

Could my nose have been any higher when I, of all people, didn't participate?

The third floor offered a memorial to fallen journalists that should have been more prominent. Tucked in an uninviting corner, it's easy to miss when it shouldn't be. There's also a great display showing how electronic news has changed from the 19th century to today. The panels chronicled advances in radio, TV, and Internet reporting along with events that best represented those advances. It's the exact display you'd expect a history of journalism museum to offer.

Another display tucked away on this floor is one to Edward R. Murrow. Long before his image was abused by every media outlet as a false stamp of approval for talent and whose award is offered in so many categories and market sizes that everyone will win something, he was providing the first live reports from WW2. Murrow's area has poor lighting and takes less space than a display of first family dogs. Priorities, Newseum. Where are your priorities?

A modern control room, but no lessons to be taught. How about explaining what goes on behind the scenes?

The fourth floor was weak. Following the third floor's lead of hiding important exhibits, a gallery on the first amendment was also easy to miss. Seeing as how it's a foundation for all press, more space should be dedicated to this article of the Constitution. Visitors can also see a mock of the late Tim Russert's office. This was very creepy, unenlightening, and clearly done to appease a big sponsor of the Newseum. Nothing is gleaned from Russert's desk.

He did host Meet the Press for many years, but to give his entire office exhibit space is too much for just an interviewer. Russert is not on par with Murrow, the only other journalist receiving such space. The Newseum should have had more displays about the greats of journalism. Another missed opportunity.

The 9/11 gallery was well done and modest with a wall of front pages, the mangled broadcast antenna, and a small theater. I chose to not watch the movie and see those images more often than I need. The Newseum balanced the event's gravity with its technical and logistical impact to NYC TV news.

I would like to see more talk about how 9/11 was the first major news story to test the Internet's capacity to deliver breaking news and how web sites featured abbreviated pages because their servers were slammed. For the first time, TV was no longer the fastest way to get news nor was it everyone's first choice. No longer did I have to wait for TV to tell me breaking news when I could just refresh my browser from many, many sources. It stamped the Internet as my generation's source for breaking stories.

The Newseum's best floor is the fifth floor, home to its collection of historic newspapers. Offering 500 years of newspapers, visitors can pull out drawers of front page copies about major events. Walls are also lined with major objects of journalism history like typewriters and "portable" communication devices. There are also small theaters with documentaries on things like the civil rights movement and the media and Hollywood's depiction of the press.

An exhibit on Woodstock used the 100-foot screen, but I wasn't interested. The exhibit tried to argue that Woodstock was a boon to music reviews, but it was a tough sell.

The history of news panels finished with a small blurb about "Who Controls the News?" It mentions that major companies own media outlets because they're tremendous revenue streams and few of these companies have ties to journalism. The Newseum tiptoed around this so as not to insult its founding partners, but to be true to the craft, more honesty is needed when writing about today's journalism world.

This printer is so so can't even print double-sided, collated, colored, stapled, 3-hole punched, 11x17 copies from a network server off a USB thumbdrive!

Corporations own many media forms, influencing and determining a story's content, angle, and opinion. If the Newseum was honest, it would debate the pros and cons, even finding this to be negative in the changing landscape. Is it too much to ask the museum built to display journalism to not reflect bias in its own reporting? It's only the foundation for the entire ethics center on the second floor.

The final floor offers more front pages from around the world, views of Pennsylvania Avenue, and an exhibit (through February 2010) about Lincoln's assassination. I though this exhibit was well done, telling the story with newspaper prints, showing how journalism actually did impact the event. Curators were just lucky to make this more about the journalism because few artifacts remain; unlike the FBI exhibit that was all artifacts and little about journalism's impact because it had little.

Funny headline mistakes keep you entertained in the bathroom.

The Newseum should change exhibit space to explain how an event becomes a story, much like you'd learn how a bill becomes a law during a visit to Congress. I suggest taking a story like a burning building and show how it's covered in a newspaper, on the radio, on TV, and on the Internet. How do the stories differ? What does each medium offer or lack in trying to tell the story? The Newseum should explain the steps to storytelling, from the assignment editor to the reporter who then talks to sources, firefighters, and neighbors, writing shorthand notes before composing the story.

From there, the story is composed in different styles depending on the medium. How about getting NAT sound for radio or good "B" roll for TV? Maybe a multimedia gallery for the web site? The Newseum should explain how a copy editor proofs a story, how a video editor works with the reporter (in larger markets) to sync pictures with words, and how a radio reporter has to put you at the scene without pictures. How do you overcome each medium's drawbacks?

Finally, with the story ready for publication, the Newseum should explain how an editor lays out a front page, how a producer and director pull together a 30-minute newscast including a much deserving mention to those behind the scenes like cameramen, tape rollers, and the many people in a control room. It's more than just the pretty face on camera that makes it work. The Newseum must dive into the nitty-gritty of journalism and put the visitor in the position to really be a reporter and not just read a teleprompter.

The Newseum already had the satellite truck so why not continue telling the tale of how an event is told as a story?

The Newseum, as I touched on before, must have honest debates about the state of the profession. The big elephant in the room is the public's distrust of the media. There should be talks about how the image of a reporter has eroded so quickly in the last 15 years and what could be done to improve things. The filtering of news through mother company eyes must be out in the open, no matter who pays the electric bills.

Journalism is about honesty so the Newseum should be honest about journalism. Until then, it's as much a building about journalism as it is a glorified modern history museum with newspapers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The way you want the Newseum sucks. "How a video editor works with the reporter"? Why the hell do i want to know that? I thought the way the Newseum was put out was interesting. The exhibits kept me into it with awesome stories to read and the pictures and artifacts were cool to look at. They kept me interested and into everything with very little bordom, and if i walk in and some dude starts talking about "the difference between radio and TV new" i would run out as soon as i can to escape to bordom...