News as the museum muse

Alladi Jayasri recounts her trip to America’s high profile museum for news, The Newseum


Everything makes news in America.  Even news.  And nothing makes great news like a museum dedicated to News.106alladi 3


In fact, an introductory film at The Newseum, in Washington DC, on the enviable address Pennsylvania Avenue says so in no uncertain terms – War is news, peace is news, hate is news, life is news, and death is news. Nothing is `not’ news, and its chroniclers take on heroic status here.


The Newseum is a viewing and walking distance from the Capitol Hill.


After admiring Kipling’s famous quote which also happens to the first lesson in journalism that one learns, I keep six honest  serving men (They taught me all I know): Their names are What and Where and When,  And How and Where and Who on the wall,  you begin the journey into the universe of news that is, seven-storeyed Newseum . To explore news history, electronic news, photojournalism, world news and how the media covered major historical events.


There are two ways to tour this monument spread over seven floors dedicated to what I really believe is the true oldest profession —  news-gathering. As a knowing insider familiar with the process of following the news and telling the story, it could make you a little cynical, a tad envious, greatly impressed, and proudly trying to find you own place in the sun of journalism as you rewind on your own momentous forays into journalism.


Or as a reader in search of the final story, a reader who sometimes glamorizes the process that went into the telling of it, and sometimes trivializes it, unimpressed, by the story and its narrator.


I decided that being a bit of both was the best way to get the bang for the 22 bucks that hold good for two consecutive days. And ventured forth, with a nod to another other writing on the wall,  attributed to  Charles A. Dana of The New York Sun – `When a dog bites a man, that is not news, but when a man bites dog, that is news’.


But first, there is no missing the facade of the Newseum, the 74-foot high marble engraving of the First Amendment – The 45 Words of Freedom, as the Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery tells it.


One learns in the course of the tour that Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”


The Newseum’s mission statement declares that it educates the public about the value of a free press in a free society, and tells the stories of the world’s important events in unique and engaging ways.


The Museum opened at its news premises in April 2008, six years after its original avatar, the smaller Newseum across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, was closed.


From being virtually invisible and off the tourist map, Newseum has super-imposed itself to being a banner headline on Pennsylvania Avenue, along the presidential inauguration path from the White House to the Capitol Hill. As New York Timesput it, “this museum is determined to be noticed.”


It appears , though 2008, was the year of fears of recession,  lay-offs in the print journalism business, and anxiety over the future of the newspaper,  it did not deter the creation of  this “publicity seeking monument to the news business, its history and hyper-linked future ,’’ Edward Rothstein said, in New York Times.


But it was with an open mind and hopes to catch any India-related exhibit that I decided to taken in what the 250,000 square feet Newseum had to offer in 100,000 words of text, 35,000 front pages and 6,214 artifacts, apart from  hundreds of photographs and newspapers, 131 interactive video monitors, 99 TV sets, 15 theatres and 40 typewriters. Does anyone even remember them? Typewriters.


Billed as one of the most expensive museum projects in decades, the seven levels and 14 galleries have much to offer – it is a fascinating glide through the gallery that traces centuries of news-gathering.


Plagiarism, fraud and scandals are not a modern invention! A 3,200 year old cuneiform tablet shows that news is a commodity of great antiquity. We Indians know- did we not deploy Sanjaya as the first ever “embedded war correspondent” who reported the Mahabharata War in all its minute detail over 4,500 years ago?


I peered into the studio where ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos is broadcast each Sunday, and  gazed long at the master control centre through  a great deal of glass.


Front pages of  scores of  papers that announced the assassination  of Martin Luther King Jr, his “I have a dream” speech and the long river of  people where had converged on  the National Mall to hear this history-making address, and  took pictures of the Chicago Daily News announcing the assassination of  Gandhiji, in banner headlines. I remember the lump in the throat choking me as I looked at it, and moved on to the news of   Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon. The spouse, who thinks Newton and Einstein are the two greatest men who ever lived, was quite peeved to find that there was no display of a front page reporting the death of Einstein on April 18, 1955.


As I moved along, I realized Newseum is in entirety American journalism, where it went and how it did.  I must admit, Newseum celebrates how well American journalism does news, in comparison to the homespun variety I come from.  They know how to hype a little thing as the pencil and satchel that belonged to the reported killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn, an armed engagement between the combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army, on June 25 and 26, 1876.


Newseum has many samples of journalism of the Revolution and of the Civil War, the World Wars … American Journalism has its footprints all over the globe.


Press has collected many warts, and Newseum has no qualms showing the warts, like the Pulitzer Prize Winner who turned out to be a fraud,   the Herald-leader in Lexinton, Kentucky, admitting in 2004 that it had allowed the front-page news of the civil rights movement in the 1960s to be consigned to the back page, Peter Arnett’s   1991 broadcast on CNN about the Saddam Hussein Government’s claim that the United States has bombed a baby-milk plant.


I followed dozens of others to crane my neck and take in the Berlin Wall exhibit – covered with graffiti. I learned that The Berlin Wall was strong enough to stop a tank, but it couldn’t stop news from getting into East Germany by word of mouth, smuggled messages or radio and television. We sneaked into the three-story East-German tower that stood close to Checkpoint Charlie, the best known East-West crossing.


What’s news and Newseum without trivia?  From the sobriety of gazing upon the Berlin Wall, we move on to the slippers donated by Anna Marie Cox who ran the Wonkette blog that salutes the new age media and how news-gathering and dissemination is done in the 21st century.


The Newseum shows a journey through the changing face of election coverage and also an exhibit dedicated to First Dogs- Lincoln’s dog, Fido, a mongrel, was the first presidential pet ever to be photographed, and I learnt this was not a very pleasant experience for the poor fellow.


It was awe-inspiring to gaze upon the 1603 English broadsheet, showing the coronation of James I’ The Maryland Gazette, in 1787, shows the news United States Constitution. In 1860, The Charleston Mercury proclaims, “The Union is Dissolved”.


Watching the 4-D movie that celebrates courageous journalism, I avoided bubbles of Marilyn Monroe, the World Trade Centre that floated towards me, as I remembered another lesson in journalism- the story of Nellie Bly’s expose of the lunatic asylum in New York in the 19th Century, and felt the rats scurrying around. The seats vibrated while I watched Luftwaffe attacks during London blitz.


The G-Men and the Journalists is a gallery that made me sad. And angry.  No, no, the gallery is a delight –  so many successful stories of fighting crime- with over 200 artefacts – the Unabomber’s cabin, Patti Hearst’s coat and gun, the engine parts and landing gear from the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.  Sad and angry because I thought of our own CBI, and had not a moment to be proud of.


The Journalist’s Memorial, a looming tribute to journalists who died pursuing news, is a two-story glass structure that bears the names of the reporters and photographers who died in the line of duty. This is where I met our very own Jyotirmoy Dey, murdered last year for his journalism exposing underworld criminals.


An exhibit of great poignancy is the 9/11 gallery, with a wall covered with the front pages from all over the world, and the mangled radio tower from the North Tower of the WTC. The documentary that plays in the little screen nearby is just as moving.


The World Press Freedom Map on display is not a happy place for an Indian to be. Newseum celebrates Press freedom in every square inch of the building, but notes that elsewhere on the globe; journalists face intimidation, censorship and perilous conditions.


Journalists have been harassed, attacked, and imprisoned simply for asking a question or reporting facts, and the World Press Freedom Map rates nations on a scale of 1 to 100. Higher the points, lesser is the degree of freedom. India scores 37, and is coloured yellow. Partly free. Green is Free, and Red, of course, is not free. If India lost seven points it would make green.


The New York Times remarked at the time that it was “as if an overstuffed newspaper Sunday supplement from the not-so-distant past had suddenly morphed into a sound-and-light display. Or as if a trade show had been mounted using the latest technology, hawking the news business in all its life-enhancing, liberty-preserving virtues.”


At times Newseum suffers from bouts of self-glorification, pomposity and vanity, but these are also traits seen in those who practice journalism!  Isn’t journalism grand?


The future of the Fourth Estate, like the first draft of history, remains to be written, as a panel declares in the News history Gallery. And the Newseum aims to engage visitors about why news matters.


The Newseum is a creation of the Freedom Forum,  a non-partisan one dedicated to “free press, free speech and free spirit of all people”  with substantial contributions from a host of news organisations.


I think of all the noise that media makes to celebrate itself and its milestones while journalism sinks to new lows. It’s a mercy that Newseum does not have an India gallery!

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Alladi Jayasri

Alladi Jayasri

Alladi Jayasri is a journalist who currently plots story-lines that may never make it to any front page. Learning America and rediscovering India through America- in its museums and monuments are her current passions. Today she writes and blogs intermittently, as she revels in being liberated from daily deadlines. She has earlier worked at The Hindu, The Times of India and Indian Express.