Monday, February 28, 2011

Newseum : A Pean to Journalism and News

This past weekend I visited “Newseum” in Washington D.C. Newseum, aptly named, is a museum about news and its related topics. I heard about from a cousin of mine and his wife for several years. They used to repeat that I’d love this place. Yes I did fall in love with that museum so much that I plan to return another day to spend more time. Please check out for information.
The Newseum building itself is modern architecture both outside and within. The glass façade with geometrical angles makes it a sunlit building. The glass encased hydraulic elevators, one of the largest in the world, is simply breathtaking. A piston that rises to 6 stories high and plumbs to 6 stories depth is indeed awesome. The entrance has a display of front pages of newspapers from all 50 states.
I saw a notice that said Dan Rather, who exited CBS disgracefully, would participate in a discussion on the movie “The Insider” (a movie about a whistle blower in Tobacco industry). I was tad disappointed. Dan Rather rushed to discredit George Bush’s service in National Guard based on forged documents during the heated presidential election cycle in 2004. His visceral hatred for Bush blinded his journalistic responsibilities. Dan Rather is perfectly within his rights to criticize, however harshly he wants to, any president. It’s his failure to uphold journalistic ethos that concerns me and that a museum dedicated to news is inviting him. I say that with all due respect to Rather’s very long impressive career in journalism. In fact the memo episode only highlights how journalists need to hold their emotions in check and constantly check themselves in a sort of “physician! Heal thyself!”.
We went to an orientation movie that gives a brief overview of the museum and suggests an itinerary to follow. A neat maps detailing the exhibits and a movie that tells us how to go around, what is not to love in all of this? I thought about my visit to Lal Bagh, Tipu’s Palace, Brindavan gardens in 2003, let’s just say that they are stuck in the stone ages.
We started from the 6th floor. The 6th floor has an impressive balcony overlooking “Pennsylvania Avenue” which has the Capitol Hill. Situated in between White house and Capitol Hill the ‘newseum’ is metaphorically aptly located. Currently the museum hosts an exhibition on Hurricane Katrina, America’s moment of shame. It was an unflinching look at one of the worst failures of America and the Bush presidency. What impressed me was the anger that grew out of an innate sense of “this is not who we are”. I’ve read that live TV telecast, of how peaceful marchers in Civil Rights era were attacked by mounted police, dogs and water cannons, shook the conscience of a nation that was forced to come face to face with a very ugly original sin. Then and now the gut level reactions of Americans, who take pride in their country being the “sweet land of liberty”, is “we can do better because we are America”. It’s that sense that makes America to time and again reach within its soul and overcome its ills. More than press reporting it was the 7X24 coverage on TV that really brought home the disaster. CNN’s Anderson Cooper became the darling of the viewers when he skewered Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco (Democrat). Many anchors vented freely on the deplorable conditions. The displays, the exhibits, the video archives featured were drawn from as diverse sources as possible. The exhibits also show cased how journalists did their duty amidst very hazardous conditions sometimes even facing possible death.
Then we went to “News history gallery” sponsored by News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch’s conglomerate that own the much reviled and much loved Fox News). This is a floor in which a history aficionado and news hound can spend hours together. The gallery traces the development of journalism through the ages. One exhibit featuring a photo of Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken noted how partisan reporting happens from both the Right and Left in equal measure. Another exhibit drew attention to how women had to fight to gain respect in a male bastion. The “National Press Club” did not at first allow women until 1971 (Indira Gandhi had been elected as Prime Minister by then), then they allowed women but restricted them to a barricaded area. Just recently a woman sports journalist was harassed in the men’s locker room of the NY Jets team. Women anchors were allowed, just like their male compatriots, to conduct interviews in the locker rooms. Gender and racial equality is a hot button topic even today amongst critics of media. By hindsight I am a little disappointed that there was no section devoted to analyzing that in greater detail than the cursory single exhibit. The hall interestingly had a plaque with a quote from Philip Graham (“Journalism is the first rough draft of history) but no celebration of his wife Kenneth Graham the first woman publisher of a major news print organization (Washington Post) who steered the paper through the Vietnam war era, faced crippling labor unrest, protected her journalists (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) during Watergate and a Pulitzer winning author.
Another interesting exhibit was about Judith Miller and New York Times. Judith Miller famously went to jail in the outing of a CIA officer to protect her unnamed source who turned out to be Dick Cheneys chief of Staff Scooter Libby. Libby was later convicted for obstruction of justice in a lawsuit out of that investigation. Miller was later released once Libby wrote to her to release his name as the source (The person who really outed the CIA agent was Colin Powells deputy Richard ArmitageLibby) . Miller’s tenure with NYT ended in a scandal over legitimacy of her sources and how she promoted the Iraq war. NYT apologized to its readers for its lack of due diligence. In another shameful episode that stained the reputation of the Gray Lady (NYT) a reporter, Jayson Blair, had published fabricated and plagiarized articles. The Sulzberger family, publishers of NYT, has donated to the museum.The section on war time coverage was brief. CNNs rise as a cable TV during Gulf War in 1991 was well documented (Incidentally Time Warner, parent of CNN is a contributor to the museum). The phone used by Rupert Murdoch to conclude mega mergers worth 2 billion dollars was an exhibit (News Corp is a major contributor to the museum).
A video show on Presidential photographers was engaging. Every president nominates a presidential photographer who then follows the president like a shadow. The intimate portraits provide a glimpse into the life of the leader of the free world. There was another exhibit called "First Dogs" show casing all the pet dogs that have inhabited the White House. The picture of "Buddy" Bill Clinton's dog had a note that he acquired it just before the sex scandal broke out. I wondered whether the note was relevant or whether the curator was Clinton hater. I am not averse to mentioning Presidential peccadilloes but I found this one to be out of place. Sometimes I think Americans tend to treat their Presidents like monarchs bordering on the reverential. Even when out of office they are surrounded by the Presidential seal. Clinton's office in Harlem NY has couch pillows emblazoned with the Presidential seal.
A major section devoted to 9/11 is unavoidable. The mangled remains of the radio tower that used be atop one of the buildings is preserved there. An entire wall, almost two stories high, has selections of front pages from papers across the country with a sprinkling of samples from international papers. An Israeli newspaper and an Arabic newspaper front page were displayed but disappointingly without translations. The video was a run of the mill documentary.
We wound our way towards the first floor and came to a section featuring remnants from Berlin Wall. It’s really a section of the Wall giving a chilling reminder of a totalitarian murderous philosophy that held its citizenry like prisoners. Maybe I missed or if it was really not there then I am disappointed about the omission of any  pictures or videos of two iconic moments in front of the Berlin Wall;  JFK declaring Eich Bin il Berliner” ( I am a Berliner too) and Reagan challenging Gorbachev Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Though we have read and seen photographs of the Berlin seeing it in concrete gives a chill contemplating the life of a citizenry had to be kept in check like animals with concrete walls, electrified barbed wires and security towers. Khrushchev, the man who erected the wall and banged his shoe on the table during a UN session, vowed to bury the capitalist west. The west still stands and his son lives in America.
Amongst all the floors that captivated me most was the section devoted to Pulitzer Prize winning photos. The power of visual imagery in touching our sensibilities is unparalleled. Some iconic photos include a sailor kissing a nurse in the streets of NYC when World War II ended, Killing of a prisoner by shooting him point blank range in his head by Viet Cong, a Buddhist monk who sets himself ablaze, hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima etc.
One photo which I found interesting was the picture of a white man lunging at an Afro-American with a flagpole aimed at the latters stomach. The flagpole had an American flag flying. This was during a protest in Boston in 1976, nearly 12 years after the signing of Civil Rights bill. That too this is Boston not a typical Southern state. A sad reminder of how racism rears its ugly head everyday in every corner of the world. Whetherit’s a black man asking for his rights or a Dalit negotiating a wall in Uthapuram the story is the same.  ( ). Since February is Black History Month the Newseum had an exhibit highlighting civil rights struggle. The exhibit was a typical segregated lunch counter. In a country that declared all men are created equal blacks had to sit in designated areas in cafes. The lunch counter protests in Greensboro, North Carolina finally ended that vicious practice. Again it’s stunning how racial discrimination is enforced in similar ways across cultures and across civilizations. If White Americans thought blacks cannot sit next to them and sip coffee so did upper caste Indians in India think of the rest.
My cousin who most graciously took me to the museum is a big supporter of Barack Obama. He said that the photo section featured a large size photo of Barack Obama campaigning in the rain (Pulitzer Prize 2009) it was no longer there but a smaller sized one was included in the collection along a timeline. The photo was an unremarkable one of Barack Obama speaking while a rain drenched him. I wondered did the Pulitzercommittee too, like the Nobel committee, become smitten by Obama-mania. I googled the details and found that the Pulitzer was not for just that photo but for a collection of photos that portrayed a historic candidacy.  . The photos capture the mood of the country.
I missed out on some fine auditoriums like the "First Amendment" and "Annenberg Theater". I was touched to note that Newseum has a section devoted to veteran NBC Sunday show (Meet the Press) interviewer Tim Russert. Tim's famous whiteboard on which he wrote "Florida, Florida, Florida" to denote  that the 2000 Presidential race is coming down to just one state, Florida, is in the archive exhibit. By the way that exciting episode does find mention at some length in another exhibit, including the ballot machines and chads. Yet another visit is pending.

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