The End of the Newseum: What Happens When the News Isn’t News and the Truth Isn’t Truth?
A powerful symbol of print journalism, the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., will be closing down forever this coming December 2019. Politics, management decisions, over-extended budgets, and the cost of newsprint itself are some of the reasons given for the closing of this glorious educational museum of the history of American journalism. Losing the Newseum feels like much more than the loss of an educational institution, however. In many respects, the Newseum’s closing signals not only the imminent end of print journalism but the end of reliability, of truth in news, in reporting, in verifiable information sources across the country.
For perspective, the number of daily newspapers has been declining for some time. Yet, there are other ominous factors at work here. According to Harvard history professor and writer Jill Lepore in the January 28, 2019 issue of The New Yorker, “Between January, 2017, and April, 2018, a third of the nation’s largest newspapers…reported large layoffs.” In one year! Those layoffs frequently meant closing down investigative journalist teams and laying off some of the best reporters in the country. Many cities have only one remaining newspaper if any and with one source of print news, what will offer dissenting views?
Increasingly since the advent of Australian Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of American news companies, news sources have become propaganda vehicles for radically conservative views.* According to an April 5, 2019 report, “The Battle to Control the Murdoch Media Empire,” in The New York Times, “Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets have helped destabilize democracy on three continents.” No small feat! Yet, the deconstruction of our daily newspapers and verifiable truth in newspapers has not been a rapid descent unless you take the long view.
If you have ever visited the Newseum, you are heartbroken about its demise. A growing sense of fear rises from the belly, fear born out of questions as to where is the country heading? Trump is more incendiary material than leader of this downward movement away from real news, from truth, from any semblance of democracy. The price of newsprint, Internet competition from “alternative news” sources, and corporate takeovers have all spelled the doom of competing, various viewpoints in print journalism.
But so has public will; Americans who preferred not to read, who for too long have lazily taken their democracy protections for granted, and then were more than willing to give everything away in exchange for venting an irrational anger and the opportunity to be “led” by a fancy entertainer, a conman whose flopping transplant and hyped up, occasionally slurred speech are just the sort of stick in the eye of their “enemies” for which they were looking. Those enemies included not only Democrats but democracy itself, the educated and the one-percent. Unfortunately, the one-percenters are the only beneficiaries in this internal, illogical warfare of Americans against Americans.
Politico editorial writer, co-editor of Slate, and far right commentator Jack Shafer recently wrote, “the Newseum deserves to die” for arguments as spurious as its “journalistic vanity” and its “artifacts displayed seem like liquidation items purchased by a crazed curator.” Shafer mockingly wrote that the Newseum “only attracts 800,000 visitors a year.” Shafer also admits he is in favor of a “dismantled welfare state and First Amendment absolutism.” You get the idea. The wealthy privileged and their propagandists would prefer we not be too fond of the First Amendment and speaking truth to power.
The large halls and open space of the seven-level Newseum are uplifting, just as its dedication to the First Amendment, its artifacts of history, including a section of the dismantled Berlin Wall on which expressions of freedom colorfully cover one side of the wall while the other side stares back as cold concrete from its days in East Berlin. Other artifacts include early American newspapers, covering Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the end of the Civil War, the start of and ending of World Wars I and II. There is the Barco screen which displays breaking news from around the world.
Within the Newseum is a gigantic display of artifacts and news articles from around the world related to the attacks on America on 9/11. A circular room on the first floor of the building exhibits the most comprehensive and stunning display of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs ever mounted. A journalism ethics center is also housed in this incredible space.
Along walls are inscribed words from the Constitution and from journalists, such as Ida B. Wells quotation: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Thomas Jefferson’s quotation is also on the walls of the Newseum: “Our liberty depends upon freedom of the press. And that cannot be limited without being lost.” Such quotations must make Trump, Murdoch, and their ilk queasy, as well as maddened.
Inside the Newseum, there is a tall, curving glass wall inscribed with the names of journalists who have lost their lives seeking to expose the truth to those abusing power. Seeing all their names—Daniel Pearl and Marie Colvin among the 1,800 brave--their lives erased for telling the truth sends shivers down the spine, unless, of course, you are Jack Shafer or Donald Trump or well, most of the Trump administration. The Newseum artifacts are hardly the stuff of “a crazed curator.” They are our history.
Dallas Morning News writer Michael Landauer wrote in the paper’s July 6, 2010 edition: “While the free Smithsonian museums do a fine job of housing our important artifacts, I believe the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue does an unparalleled job of telling our nation’s story.”
Adrienne Rich wrote a poem titled “What Kind of Times Are These” in which “the persecuted disappear into those shadows…this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,/our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,/its own ways of making people disappear.” Who could have imagined such prescience about our current state of affairs from a poet writing in 1995?
I think of that title and Rich's anxiety-producing poem now. I think of those men and women journalists whose names are inscribed on a wall which will be torn down, those truth seekers who gave their lives so we could know what was happening in the world. And I think of an American populace who appear to prefer not to know.
Nancy Avery Dafoe
*Listing of Murdoch-owned companies and media outlets in the U.S.A.; source: https://thesocialpoets.blogspot.com/2011/07/rupert-murdoch-just-how-many-companies.html
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