Monday, June 22, 2009

a museum for everything, including me

World-class museums are certainly one reason to live in D.C. I have a lot to still visit, but between the Smithsonian and the Newseum, which I spent five hours in on Saturday, I'm beginning to think I could spend every day wondering exhibits and never get tired.
The Newseum was the first not-free museum I've seen. (I still got in for free though because our program adviser bought tickets.) It was amazing. Taking into account that I work as a journalist— and the Newseum is basically a giant, love-memorial to journalism — I still believe it's an amazing collection. For history buffs, the museum feels like a playground. One giant hall features original newspapers dating back from the 1400s, chronicling all of the most significant events — think of the cliche newspaper-spinning transition used in old movies (dodidodidodido "WAR DECLARED"-type scenario).

There was also an extremely poignant 9/11 exhibit, telling the tail of how reporters covered the event and the physical/emotional challenges they overcame. It was heart-ripping.
Both live at the museum and on their website, the Newseum also collects the front page from newspapers worldwide, providing a great comparison tool on how news is covered in different areas and cultures.
Of course, everything also held an air of the nostalgic, hinting at the looming demise of newspapers. It's so frustrating to hear people debate the pros and cons of newspapers folding, always lamenting the lack of "pure, investigative journalism," yet continuing to promote fluffy, entertainment news. The industry has developed an unsettling double standard: seek truth and justice, but only so long as readers tune in, call in or click on it. When that fails, things get ugly.

I don't care if newspapers fail so long as the idea of good journalism survives — the attention to quality and depth not yet seen in any other medium. That's what makes working in a newsroom so exhilarating — watching coworkers debate issues and rewrite articles late into the night to ensure correctness and completeness. There's a sense of civil service, a sense that we're providing people with something important: the COMPLETE truth. And while no legitimate news organization lies, the sift in focus from objective importance to rating-controlled content — particularly when the audience seems to place little value on objective news — casts a lot of doubt on that mission.

I hate to cast generalities; some news operations — my favorite of which is NPR — do a great job. But when you sift through the information, you realize that even NPR gets most of it's deepest stories from the paper. Listen to any of their news shows for a few minutes and you're sure to hear "according to the New York Times..." or "The Washington Post reports..." No other medium to date has the staff or resources to do the job right, and if we loose that, I want no part of where journalism is headed.
Some say journalism is the only noble profession, where truth and quality are valued above all else. I doubt that has ever been true — from yellow journalism to the muckrakers, corporate interest has always held the reigns. But, at least for the individual writers and editors making bottom-level salary, it's the illusion of that noble cause that keeps late and sane.

I think that's why my Newseum trip was so great: the overpowering, sometimes cheesy, feeling of journalistic duty.

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