USA Yesterday

Neither picketing Teamsters nor historical complexity can disturb the cheerful fagade of the Newseum, the just-opened news museum brought to us by the same folks who gave us USA Today. Our correspondent brings back a report from the Wonderful World of Neuharth.

Published April 22, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

it's hard to go anywhere in Washington, D.C., except perhaps its extensive slums, without being reminded that Americans are patriots, that patriots are heroes and that the United States of America is the best country in the whole goddamn world. Stepping off the train on my way to the opening of the Newseum, the Freedom Forum's just-opened shrine to corporate newsgathering and the First Amendment, I noticed that even the Amtrak station bears a plaque commemorating the men who died building Our Nation's Great Railroads.

Given that most Americans are even more cynical about journalists and the media than they are about our abysmal train system, I was having trouble imagining how the capital's newest museum was going to elevate its subject to the level of our valiant track-laying ancestors.

I needn't have worried. You see, the Newseum, located in Arlington, Va., is essentially brought to us by the folks who gave us USA Today. The $50 million Newseum is sponsored by an organization called The Freedom Forum, which is headed by USA Today founder Al Neuharth and supported by an endowment from the Gannett Company, which, in addition to USA Today, publishes 90 other newspapers. Just as USA Today has a way of making all things cheery and uplifting, the Newseum has turned journalism history into a perky success story. And admission is free!

Attending the opening of the Newseum last Friday (and arriving, alas, too late to watch Al Gore give the place his blessing), I did have to pass by a few reminders of the sometimes uncheery realities of the world before I was able to get safely inside. At the nearest Metro stop I discovered a pile of Teamsters flyers lying in the trash. "Does Gannett Buy Silence?" they demanded. The leaflets enumerated Gannett's crimes, among them the company's shameful treatment of its striking workers in Detroit. And outside the Newseum itself I found a bunch of real live Teamsters, shouting out slogans that didn't quite scan: "This is not a museum!" they kept yelling. "It's Gannett!" Then they found rhyme --"Sanitized! Anesthetized! Homogenized!" they chanted in unison. But still, it wasn't exactly "I Have a Dream."

Visitors to the Newseum are welcomed into what at first seems a gloriously gimmicky celebration of Our Multicultural World. You're greeted in the lobby by the word "news" in 50 languages. Upstairs, at the News Globe, you'll find nameplates and mottoes from newspapers around the world; my favorite was from Fiji, just west of the International Dateline: "The First Newspaper Published in the World Today."

But this warm-and-fuzzy internationalism gives way quickly to something else again -- a picture of foreign governments as the gravest threat to newsgathering today. In the U.S., home of the First Amendment, good journalism and patriotism are one and the same. And the giant conglomerates that control nearly all the news in this country are, it turns out, the biggest patriots of all. Media monopoly, you see, is a very good thing: Disney and Westinghouse are so powerful that they can stand up to those bad foreign rulers. (And luckily the Newseum won't ruin our afternoon by bringing up the sticky question of just who can stand up to Disney and Westinghouse.)

The other villain in the Newseum's story is the ungrateful American public, which doesn't appreciate the First Amendment or the journalists who heroically defend it every day. The Newseum attempts to right this wrong by letting the public know what a noble profession journalism is. Here are photojournalists dying in battle. Here are Woodward and Bernstein bringing a corrupt president to his knees. Newspeople, it seems, are like saints, their relics -- from the satchel that Civil War journalist Mark Kellogg carried when he rode with Custer to Thomas Paine's trunk -- presented with reverence. A block-long wall of press passes celebrates ... what? The folks who intrepidly braved all obstacles to attend Norman Schwartzkopf's sanitized press briefings? Label copy cryptically intones: "The events end, but the press passes remain."

Of course, not all press passes survive the slings and arrows (not to mention bombs) of the real world. Outside the Newseum there's a memorial that, in keeping with the rampant necrophilia of the rest of our nation's capitol, lists the names of journalists around the world who have been slain on the job.

In the News History Gallery, I learned a few facts not commonly found in the textbooks. Did you know that Karl Marx had been fired from the New York Tribune for submitting falsified invoices? Or that in parts of India, a village crier used to shout the news through a conch shell? But this history suffers from some pretty jarring omissions. The protest outside notwithstanding, for instance, labor gets short shrift inside the Newseum; it's mentioned exactly twice. Taking note of the 1899 "newsies" strike, the label copy reminds us, presumably as proof of this event's importance, that a Disney movie has been made about it. It also reassures us that after "out-of-town unionists" bombed the Los Angeles Times in 1918, the paper kept right on publishing.

In an even odder twist, although the Newseum celebrates the ideological diversity of the 19th century press, it greets the homogeneity of today's media with equal enthusiasm. When we get to the 1980s, we encounter what is essentially an ad for USA Today. The hero of the story, clever Al Neuharth, then-CEO of Gannett (now president of the Freedom Forum), launched a crusade to make news easier to read. And though critics derided USA Today as a "McPaper," its format, all zippy graphics and bite-sized stories, has been widely imitated, because it was such a neat idea. (And certainly not because Gannett gobbled up dozens of local papers and made them indistinguishable from its flagship.)

But don't think print journalism gets all the attention. The Video News Wall, at 126 feet long and 10.5 feet high, can show nine different breaking newscasts at once. Walking into the gallery, I was immediately assaulted by a 14-by-10.5-foot Nordic Track ad that must have gone on for at least five minutes before it faded into a Fox News promo, celebrating the network's "fair" and "balanced" news. Then a gargantuan Peter Jennings materialized on-screen to welcome me to the Newseum once again, joined by his clones in Hong Kong, Buenos Aires and Germany.

Most of the Newseum's multimedia displays aren't quite as frightening. The interactive exhibits have a certain "What Do People Do All Day" charm to them, and seemed quite popular with the kids. You can read the news -- with cue cards, natch -- standing in front of a White House backdrop (just like Cokie Roberts!), then you can watch yourself on a TV monitor; if you like what you see, you can buy the tape. I watched a pair of awkwardly feisty 11-year-old girls at once horrified and delighted at the spectacle of their on-screen debut. In another booth, you can put your face on a magazine cover -- a treat formerly reserved for such notable celebrities as Tyra Banks, Marshall Herff Applewhite and Alfred E. Neuman. Again, if you like it you can buy it.

Will the Newseum succeed in making the media a Washington tour bus subject, complete with oversized heroes and dead patriots? It may well. Though Americans are plenty cynical about the government, and about journalists, we're not nearly cynical enough about multinational corporations. The Newseum manages to make us grateful for the First Amendment, and for the earnest sweat that brings the paper to our doorstep each morning, by feeding us a big interactive infomercial for Fox, CNN, ABC, Gannett and all the rest. The arrhythmic Teamsters outside the Newseum will eventually pack up their leaflets and go home. And the Newseum will continue to pump its peppy pseudo-history into the heads of jaded journalists and energetic preteens alike.

By Liza Featherstone

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