GOODBYE TO A GRANDIOSE SELF-IMAGE

The Newseum shutters at the end of the month.

We’ve not been shy with our criticism of what could have been a valuable archive but instead turned out to be a money-gobbling vanity project that sank as the result of its own muddle expectations.

“The LA Time” and columnist Michael Hiltzik take a pretty comprehensive look back at where it went wrong.

The Newseum evidently couldn’t make a go of it even with an adult ticket price of $24.99 — this in a town where some of the finest museums in the world are free — so it will shut its doors on Dec. 31 and return much of its collection of borrowed news business artifacts and geegaws to their owners.

Some years ago at a Washington social event I met one of the Newseum’s original board members. He went on at length about its $450-million building, paying particular tribute to its first-class event spaces.

The Newseum, evidently, has been a fine venue for a wedding or bar mitzvah, though you weren’t permitted to hire your own caterer — you had to hire Wolfgang Puck, who controlled the catering contract as well as the restaurant associated with the museum, known as The Source by Wolfgang Puck.

The Newseum was a personal project of late Gannett Chairman Al Neuharth, who also founded USA Today as his company’s national flagship. Neuharth was responsible for the Newseum’s grandiose self-image, chose its site at Pennsylvania and 6th in Washington and oversaw its architectural conception, in which the words of the 1st Amendment are etched on a six-story veneer of pink marble facing Pennsylvania Ave.

Yes, much of the museum is devoted to newsgathering and the underlying principles of American journalism. Among its more popular exhibits is a daily display of newspaper front pages from around the world. There also are exhibits of pages associated with notable historical events such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Nixon’s resignation, as well edifying blunders such as the Chicago Tribune’s front-page “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline of 1948.

But could someone tell me what the exhibit “First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Pets” has to do with journalism? Among the Newseum’s most prominent artifacts are a piece of the Berlin Wall (“the largest display of unaltered portions of the wall outside of Germany,” the museum boasts) and the antenna mast that stood atop the World Trade Center’s north tower until 9/11. These are items of historical interest, certainly, but what’s the rationale for placing them inside a news museum, other than that they represent events that were, well, covered in the news?

[N]otwithstanding its stated mission “to increase public understanding of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment,” the Newseum was a commercial enterprise whose visitors were ushered past multimedia displays and interactive games and directed to exit past the gift shop, an opportunity for commerce not to be overlooked.

Remember when the gift shop was stocked with red MAGA caps and “fake news” t-shirts?

Good times.

Its demise is lamentable not because of what it was but what it could have been. Now the chance to create a truly valuable resource for American journalism may be lost forever.

More News from Monday, December 16, 2019