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.


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.

React Now

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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform