BOB GARFIELD: Last month, at Sixth and Pennsylvania Avenue overlooking the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the second generation of the Newseum opened its doors. The brainchild of the Freedom Forum, the Newseum is a seven-story, 450-million-dollar celebration of the First Amendment and of the two-and-a-half centuries of news and opinion it has yielded. I spent a day there recently and brought back – this. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] [CLIP] ACTOR AS JAMES MADISON: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: That's James Madison reading the First Amendment to the Constitution. I mean, not the real James Madison, duh! It's an actor all dressed up to look Founding Fatherly in one of the 15 theaters and close to a trillion video screens here, designed to make our freedoms come alive. JOE URSCHEL: This is an educational experience, but it's also an entertaining one. BOB GARFIELD: Former USA Today news executive Joe Urschel is Executive Director of the Newseum.
JOE URSCHEL: One of our most popular galleries is actually our restrooms, where we've posted some of the most egregious bloopers that newspapers have made in story content and in headlines. [SOUND OF TOILET FLUSHING] BOB GARFIELD: Yep, here's the part where I make fun of the Newseum, which is like shooting fish wrapper in a barrel. For starters, please note that the sacred artifacts of journalism deemed worth of preservation and public display – Rupert Murdoch's desk phone, Peter Jennings' mouse pad, Wonkette's slippers, even massive concrete slabs of the Berlin Wall, whose claim to relevance is not instantly clear. Because it was in all the papers?
Then there's the sheer scale of the place - its 800-square-foot atrium TV screen, its 250,000 square feet of exhibit space, its half-billion-dollar price tag and 20-dollar ticket price, all of which stand in ironic juxtaposition to the incredible shrinking industry it celebrates.
Yes, it would be easy to conclude that as a central curatorial concept, scale is what the place is all about. This is from the welcome video. [CLIP] WOMAN: Here's a fun fact. These elevators are the tallest hydraulic-lift elevators in the world. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Here's a fun fact. I don't care. Never mind, onto the 4-D movie because 3-D is evidently one dimension too few for the Newseum. [CLIP] MALE NARRATOR: Here you will travel through time, a stowaway on the greatest journey of all times, to make news. Our destination - BOB GARFIELD: [YAWNS] MALE NARRATOR: - the eyewitness reporter on the scene, the recorder of history in the making. Prepare for time travel. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Prepare for time travel, and also your theater seat wiggling electromechanically to simulate the real-life thrills and spills of press freedom. [CLIP] Holy mackerel, I'm inside a printing press and it's moving fast! [END CLIP] I wasn't the only one that was impressed. I shuffled out of the theater just behind the Lacrosse Team from Oratory Prep of Summit, New Jersey, whose members thought deeply about the greatest journey of all time. [VOICES IN BACKGROUND] YOUNG MAN: Three-and-a-half foot. No, I like 3-D and a twist.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, it's easy to find fault with this place. And I got in for free. This may explain the sneering that has gone on in our cherished free press.
Joanne Ostrow of The Denver Post called the Newseum "a grandiose vanity project." Slate's Jack Shafer said it was a "gilded disaster," and Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard said the place is "preening, pretentious, and absurd." But you know what? Not so fast! [CLIPS] FORMER PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting. DAVID BRINKLEY: And to say that somebody is about to land on the moon and walk around on it, while almost everybody on Earth watches is just about too much to swallow. EDWARD R. MURROW: Tonight's See it Now devotes its entire half hour to a report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, told mainly in his own words and pictures. MORLEY SAFER: And all around the common paddy field that feeds these hamlets, a ring of fire. A hundred and fifty homes were leveled in retaliation for a burst of gunfire. If there were Viet Cong in the hamlets, they were long gone. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Vietnam, Watergate, the moon landing, McCarthyism – those are just some of the extraordinary moments in our national history, documented by the press, and preserved here. Not only is it fascinating, even a bit nostalgic, to relieve them via telescreen replay, these are pretty poignant reminders of journalism's watchdog responsibility in a democracy.
Elsewhere in the 250,000 square feet, there are other reminders of journalistic daring more poignant still. An armored vehicle used by a Time Magazine correspondent in Bosnia – it's shot up with bullet holes. The Datsun in which Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was murdered by a bomb that ripped through the floorboards. And the camera equipment, notebooks and IDs belonging to Bill Biggart, salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. ABC's Charlie Gibson narrates the video at that exhibit. [CLIP] CHARLIE GIBSON: Bill Biggart died when the second tower collapsed. It was his friend and fellow photographer Chip East who helped recover his camera gear and the pictures he had taken. MAN: From the last picture shot, as the dust comes across him from the South Tower falling - [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Does the Newseum, as Jack Shafer alleges, fetishize artifacts? No? As it turns out, the Newseum displays them, leaving you to ponder what messages a smashed camera or a pair of slippers might convey.
Even the slabs of the Berlin Wall, bare on the Eastern side, graffiti-covered on the Western, are profound metaphors, after all. They are about the power of news. Joe Urschel. JOE URSCHEL: You realize that the Berlin Wall was able to imprison people within their own country, but the Wall was not able to stop information from coming in over and around the wall. BOB GARFIELD: Oh, it's easy to understand why the critics rolled their eyes. Journalists tend to react viscerally to pomposity and self-congratulation. But they also tend to be just too cool for the room.
Maybe this is not the time or the place to be self-effacing or blasé. Our civil liberties, not least press freedom, have been under assault for seven years by a government that doesn't respect them, with the acquiescence of a population that seems not to fully understand what in the name of Homeland Security they are surrendering.
Maybe at a time like this a measure of bluntness and self-congratulations and breathtaking scale is just what the doctor ordered. JOE URSCHEL: If it weren't an overriding principle, we wouldn't have put the 45 words of the First Amendment in the 50 tons of marble on the front of our building. We're trying to make that message clear without any degree of subtlety whatsoever. BOB GARFIELD: So if it's a bit hokey that they dressed a pretend James Madison up in breeches and a wig, that's okay because the visitors who have spent 20 dollars for a ticket sit there and listen. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] ACTOR PLAYING JAMES MADISON: The Bill of Rights includes the First Amendment, which with 45 words forbids government interference with certain fundamental freedoms. BOB GARFIELD: Oh, look, there's a teenager. Perhaps she'll say something stupid I can ridicule.
What if I said to you that the freedom of the press is what makes our whole democracy work? Do you think that makes any sense? JUSTINA BRUMMEL: Yeah, because it gives people the freedom to actually let other people know what's really going on. BOB GARFIELD: What if I criticized the government, how does that work for you? JUSTINA BRUMMEL: Well, I think that they're being – that they’ve been doing a really good job on having the press really get deep down into the news. BOB GARFIELD: I didn't lecture Justina Brummel that the press largely sat on its hands in the run-up to Iraq because - she was a first-grader at the time.
Anyway, I had to get to the 4-D movie. When the rats crawl on proto-investigative reporter Nellie Bly in the sanitarium, back in the 19th Century or whatever, they also electromechanically crawl all over you in your seat. Gross!
Also, I've got to say, except for - okay, actual democracy - pretty much it was the coolest thing ever.