The museum that reminds you of the true value of journalism

The Newseum reminds us that the basis of all journalism lies not in its power but its reporting.

Share

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.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Read Next
London's New Year's Eve fireworks event is going to be ticketed this year for the first time at £10 a head  

London’s far too exclusive already, so don’t start charging people for the New Year’s Eve fireworks

Mary Dejevsky
So far Ebola has caused 2,600 fatalities and infected more than 5,300 people  

To stop Ebola killing thousands more, we need doctors who are willing to put their lives on the line

Peter Popham
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week