Newseum: A Trip to the Freedom of the Press Museum in Washington

Newseum in Washington D.C.
Photo: Maria Bryk/Newseum

I had an opportunity to go to Washington D.C. last week for two days, accompanying my wife, who had work to do meeting members of Congress on behalf of a children’s nonprofit she supports. Given how President Trump rattles the bars on his cage every day against the other two branches of government, and particularly against the fourth estate, as the media is called, I thought it might be a good thing to visit the Newseum, which was founded by Al Neuharth and the Freedom Forum in 1997. I’d never been there. I thought it might buck me up. It did.

One section had an 80-foot-long display of front pages of 40 daily newspapers, side by side. The front pages were from that morning. Separate showcases featured The Sacramento Bee, The Wall Street Journal, The Miami Herald, the Chicago Tribune and so forth and so on. Many front pages offered local news, while others offered national or global news. This particular day, some front pages headlined Trump’s attempted takeover of the job Congress has been tasked with. He’d issued an “executive order” about who is allowed to talk or provide information to the House of Representatives.

Above the newspapers was a quote from a Congressman from the past, Daniel Moynihan (D-NY). It read, “If you visit a country where the newspapers are all filled with good news, you’ll find a lot of good people in the jails.”

Berlin sign
Photo: Dan Rattiner

One large hall with a 50-foot ceiling featured at its center an enormous 40-foot-tall concrete watchtower that had stood in East Berlin on the Communist side of the Berlin Wall for many years. Many Germans who tried to scale the wall were spotlighted by the big searchlights atop this tower to help sharpshooters pick them off. Five concrete panels of the Berlin Wall itself, each 10 feet high, were adjacent to the tower. You could walk around the wall. Words printed on the ground spelled out the rules of each side, so you had to step on these rules. Here’s what was on the west side:


Here’s what was on the east side:


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Other exhibits included a 15-foot-tall twisted steel wreckage from 9/11, Pulitzer Prize-winning news photos, great editorial cartoons over the last century, a big satellite news truck, a wall inscribed with the names of journalists killed while on war assignment or murdered in retaliation for their reporting. In the five-story entry hall of the museum, a helicopter appeared to float along suspended from the ceiling on a wire, its occupants supposedly monitoring a news story down below. There were displays about the Civil Rights Movement, women getting the vote, rights for gays, immigration, prohibition and, in a theater with a flat-screen 100-foot-long TV, live feeds from multiple news sources at the top of every hour, bringing museum goers up-to-the-minute news.

Of particular interest to me was television footage of Watergate and the fall of President Richard Nixon. Seen on early black-and-white TVs nestled within the wooden consoles that graced living rooms of that era, the video was shown complete with sound.

“These accusations are based on the most flimsy evidence imaginable,” says John Mitchell, the Attorney General, about the news that Nixon had been masterminding the burglary of the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate. “It’s all lies,” says one of Nixon’s press secretaries at a news conference. “The journalists who make this stuff up should be punished.”

And I thought I was taking a vacation from all the troubles we are having today.

Another room was filled with other TV or radio news reports from bygone eras. AIDS. The Depression. Also, behind glass, the yellowing front pages of old original newspapers featured headlines that screamed out at you. KENNEDY SHOT. JAPAN ATTACKS OAHU. GERMANS SURRENDER. A-BOMB DROPPED ON HIROSHIMA. DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE SIGNED.

There was an exhibit of “fake news.” One newspaper reporter circa 1925 said that three-foot-tall aliens had been seen on telescopes pointed at the moon. Another described The New YorkTimes’ discovery of made-up interviews by a celebrated New York Times journalist in the 1990s. And Judith Miller’s inaccurately vetted reporting of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

There was other inaccurate news, either by accident or on purpose. In one display, a man was photographed holding a St. Louis daily newspaper that headlined DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, so declaring the man who lost as our next president. Another newspaper, I think it was in Tallahassee, earned three front pages from the same day, side-by-side at the museum. Each was published a few hours after the one before. The headlines were BUSH BEATS GORE, then GORE BEATS BUSH, then TOO CLOSE TO CALL.

The Newseum was packed with high school students and their chaperones from around the country. We had lunch at a table in the huge first floor cafeteria with three junior high school students from Indianapolis, whose parents and teachers had accompanied them on a 12-hour drive to Washington. When I asked one of them what was most memorable, she said “the flag going up at Iwo Jima.” It seems freedom might be safe after all.

The last exhibit we visited was called “First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Pets.” Then I issued an “executive order” in the matter of our moving on to a National Geographic museum that had an exhibit on Egyptian Queens.

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