Journalism's "Gilded Disaster"

Journalism's "Gilded Disaster"

The glittering new seven-story steel and glass Newseum, built for $450 million, will impress some visitors looking to find the inside scoop on the news. But since it was built by many of the nation’s leading media organizations and dynasties, don't look for too many exposés.

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THE SOURCE: “Down With the Newseum!” by Jack Shafer, in Slate, Feb. 7, 2008.

Now Beltway journalists who tire of flattering D.C.’s political poo-bahs can soothe their own egos at a shrine to their profession. The ­seven-­story Newseum, just off the National Mall, opened in ­April.

The ­steel-­and-­glass edifice on Pennsylvania Avenue took four years to build and cost $450 million, making it one of the most expensive museums ever erected. Among its impressive features are a multilevel Wolfgang Puck restaur­ant, 15 theaters, and a 50-ton marble tablet on which the First Amend­ment is chiseled. All told, the museum’s 6,214 journalism artifacts weigh more than 81,000 pounds. (Most of these numbers are on the Newseum’s website in a handy press release, a ­fact-­minded reporter’s dream.) But for all its opulence, writes media critic Jack Shafer, the Newseum fundamentally misses the ­story.

The process of gathering and reporting the news isn’t readily conveyed through “trivial” artifacts, he argues. Gazing on “fascinating curios”—such as the satchel, pencil, and eyeglasses that belonged to Bismarck Tribune reporter Mark Kellogg, who was killed in 1876 along with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn—“tells you what about journalism?” A museum can provide insight into the news industry—­Shafer cites New York’s Paley Center for ­Media—­but the Newseum is all flash, a “gilded disaster.” For the fortune it cost, the funders could have endowed a ­newspaper.

And consider the source, Shafer cautions. The Newseum is underwritten primarily by the Freedom Forum (formerly the Gannett Foundation), and donors include many of the nation’s leading media organizations and dynasties. Like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, whose content was heavily determined by Native American tribes, “the Newseum suffers from the fact that curatorial power is invested in the home team.” In other words, don’t look for any exposés.