Some folks are unhappy with the media. They're convinced that it's biased, or dumbed-down, or that it gets the facts wrong even when it reports something important.
A museum about that same news industry -- the journalists, telling the story about telling the story -- it's just confusing and a tad suspicious, like watching a show on the History Channel about the history of the History Channel. If years of bad media hadn't transformed us into such dummies, maybe we'd better appreciate a museum about the media.
The Newseum was built with us in mind, though -- ready to dispel the public's crazy preconceptions, but also prepared to distract us with a lot of material ripped from sensational headlines of the past. With exhibits such as John Dillinger's cigar of death, and the hermit cabin built by the Unabomber, it tries to make its visitors realize that "news" is something other than an abstraction unworthy of a museum.
Flashy, giant video screens are everywhere in the Newseum, a super-slick building on Pennsylvania Avenue halfway between the White House and Capitol Hill. A seven-story-tall copy of the First Amendment is attached to its exterior, "to remind both arms of government that we're here," according to Patty Rhule, the Newseum projects editor. The Newseum, said Patty, is "the thinking person's theme park."
We're not sure if "thinking" and "theme park" should ever be used together, but we give the Newseum credit for at least trying to spice things up a bit.
The Newseum's vast atrium holds both a suspended communications satellite and a full-size news helicopter. A cheap, tawdry news museum would've dangled the chopper over OJ Simpson's SUV*, but the Newseum suspends it over the largest collection of Berlin Wall slabs in the U.S., which stand in front of a genuine East German guard tower that soars several stories high. On every floor the ubiquitous video screens continually feed live news or replay historic broadcasts. Their Master Control Room is built with glass walls, so that visitors can see the waveform monitors and vectorscopes in action.
*(The Newseum has the suit, shirt, and tie that OJ wore the day he was acquitted. It was rejected by the Smithsonian, and was one of the mementoes that OJ was trying to grab when he was later arrested in Las Vegas and eventually sent to prison.)
The News History Gallery, where you can read the front pages of real newspapers going back hundreds of years, is "the heart and soul of the museum," according to Patty. It's surrounded by memorabilia that range from the house slippers worn by The Wonkette to the hidden camera worn by a reporter to snap pictures of a woman being electrocuted. Other artifacts include the stairwell door that thwarted the bungling Watergate burglars, and Bill Gates' ergonomic PC keyboard -- although we're not sure how that last item relates to the news.
The Newseum works hard to tie the media to substantive events rather than tabloid puffery, but doesn't always succeed. The shattered hulk of a car blown up to kill an investigative reporter shows how serious journalism can be -- but it's displayed down the hall from an exhibit titled, "Vote for America's Top First Dog" (LBJ's beagle was winning when we visited). A giant hunk of 9/11 wreckage is reverently displayed in a solemn, soaring, temple-like space -- while three floors below is a 4-D theater where visitors wear funny glasses and get sprayed in the face with water.
Many of the best exhibits in the Newseum come from the archives of the FBI, whose Washington museum closed after 9/11. Patty explained that the Newseum displays only crime artifacts from "FBI cases in which the media played a role" -- in other words, all of the juiciest, most sensational cases, which make for good museum exhibits. There's the sawed-off rifle carried by brainwashed Patty Hearst, the electric chair used to kill the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby, and a poem hand-written by Saddam Hussein to his FBI handler, "to thank him for sharing some homemade cookies on Hussein's birthday," according to its display. The media connection to these may be thin, but if you've got the chance to showcase a clown painting by a serial killer, or the crankshaft from the truck bomb that blew up in Oklahoma City, you go for it.
(Years ago, we had an intimate encounter with the electric chair when it was exhibited at the Capital Punishment Museum, and the poem is one of a growing list of Saddam Hussein mementoes that have become fashionable in museums).
Our favorite exhibit in the Newseum is the hermit cabin built by Ted "The Unabomber" Kaczynski, in which he lived in the woods for 23 years. It's not the rough-hewn pioneer home that we'd expected, but it is an impressive example of obsessive-compulsive carpentry -- every inch of wood has seven nails in it. Ted lived without electricity or running water, and Patty pointed to what she called "The Shroud of Kaczynski" -- a human-shaped stain on an inner wall next to where Ted used to sleep, formed by 23 years of man-grease.
"He's mad at us," Patty said of Kaczynski. "He says that we're exploiting his victims by putting this on display."
The Newseum may be full of itself at times, but it's hardly exploitative. An employee in the gift shop told us that the Newseum's top-selling souvenir is its "Got Freedom?" t-shirt, an expression of skepticism that even a crazed bomb-making hermit could support, and a healthier keepsake than the spy cameras for sale in The Spy Museum only two blocks away. Secret cameras, as we learned at the Newseum, should only be used by the media.