A fine tie, remarked the immigration official at Washington’s Dulles airport, looking at my Liberty Lawn example.
“Rather bold for a conservative Obama Washington.”
Washington DC is, indeed, a sober place these days, the poverty showing among the destitute around the hostels and in the shuttered shops in once-buoyant Georgetown. But it remains an open city, ever anxious to show its visitors, especially its own citizens, that here is the federal capital of the country if not the wider world.
Nowhere more so than in the museum dedicated to the media, the Newseum, newly relocated to Pennsylvania Avenue, overlooking Capitol Hill. Emblazoned with the words of the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech, spreading over six floors, all glass and chrome in keeping with modernity, it proclaims not just the history of the press but its importance.
Here stands the media, it says, as good as any of the great institutions of state around. It may have its heart in New York, but its place is here at the centre of power. Wary of the pomposities of the media when it talks about itself, I had gone there as a cynic and came out unexpectedly enthused.
The media may be declining in finance, influence and reputation but it has been, and remains, a wonderful window on events, large the small. The museum has managed to obtain both a remnant and a watchtower of the actual Berlin Wall and the mangled telecommunication tower that topped the World Trade Center.
Around them you can read, or call up the television reports, of the occasions, minute by minute as it was reported. There’s the door of the Watergate building which Nixon’s minions broke into, the cabin from which the “Unabomber” sent his explosive messages of hate, and, down below, a display from the FBI of the artefacts of the gangster era.
It was as these artefacts were presented to the readers and the viewers that they really came alive. There is something moving as well as gripping about following the first photographs of the moment the planes hit the Twin Towers, the stories of the journalists who rushed to record it, and those who died in getting too close.
The basis of all journalism, you are reminded, lies not in its power but its reporting. Whether you look at the long central table of one floor, with its shelves of front pages recording the great events from the American Revolution to the re-election of Obama, or the corner displaying every photograph shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, what holds you is the immediacy of the story. The means of communication alter with the internet, digital photography and the mobile phone, but not the event.
What has changed is the intermediation. In their early life, newspapers were not just recorders of events, they were active participants in the arguments and the change that raged around, often in the service of propagating the views of their backers. With larger circulations and higher profits in the late 19th century, they began to see themselves more as a separate force, representing their readers against power.
With the 20th century and the coming of radio and then television, the media took upon itself the role of main channel of information to the public, the guarantor of its accuracy and the interpreter of its meaning.
The Newseum has a side room, a shrine almost, to Ed Murrow, master of radio reporting and the David who brought down the Goliath of Senator McCarthy and his Communist witch-hunt. It’s touching but also sad. There aren’t Ed Murrows around now and there can’t be.
The expert reporter standing before the camera explaining what all the bustle or carnage around him means still survives in public-service broadcasting, but the role is disappearing under the competition of strong views and amateur shots. The days when the media had moral authority in events have gone.
Neither newspapers nor television can any longer afford to send reporters around the world unless the breaking story absolutely demands it. There isn’t the money, or the obvious market, to let journalists listen and learn in preparation for events which may or may not occur. It is cheaper and more effective to get the photograph and the voice of someone on the scene when it does occur.
One of the interactive sections in the museum allows you to create your own front page from a choice of stories, pictures and headlines. It’s fun, and the young visitors were clearly enjoying it. It assumes, however, that information is a given and the craft is in mixing and presenting it. The digital screen allows news to be a pick-and-mix affair in which the customer navigates to what interests them rather than what a journalist thinks they should take notice of.
Britain has no equivalent to the Newseum. We’re too competitive for that. Maybe we should, as a reminder of what makes us run and what we are worth.