A Place With the Inside Story on News
The capital's Newseum offers the public a chance to understand how the media work
The video news wall in the capital's Newseum isn't supposed to speak with one voice - the whole idea of showing simultaneous video feeds from all over the world is to show visitors the great diversity in the world's sense of news.
But on Friday, Sept. 5, at 1 p.m. Eastern daylight time, only one thing counted as news: Queen Elizabeth II's live television broadcast on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Visitors to the world's first interactive museum of news broke away from playing news games on touch-screen computer terminals to listen to the queen's words. Such a live address was rare for the British monarch, but even more rare for the Newseum, for it marked the first time since the museum's April 18 opening that all nine panels on its 126-foot-long video news wall carried the same image and sound.
The moment signaled how quickly world reaction to the death of the popular princess was shaping up as a remarkable news event. And real-life news professionals soon found themselves both covering the event and defending against charges that the press had had a hand in creating it.
News photographers and paparazzi regularly reduced Diana to "tearful despair," her brother Charles, the 9th Earl Spencer, told mourners in London's Westminster Abbey on Sept. 6. "She talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment she received at the hands of the newspapers," he said.
Such public concerns were a leading reason for developing an interactive news museum in the first place, say Newseum officials.
"We are not apologists for the news media, but we want people to understand this news product that they are consuming a little better," says Joe Urschel, the Newseum's executive director.
We know, he says, that what the public most resents about news coverage are intrusions on a person's privacy - such as photographers chasing people on motorcycles.
"One of the biggest public misconceptions is that the news media are one thing. In fact, the media include White House reporters and photographers, paparazzi in France, kids in college covering baseball games, and multiple PhDs writing op-ed pieces - all with different codes of ethics and behavior. It's easy to pick out what's worst in all of them and focus on that as something to hate.
"The paparazzi is not a club you join. People who wind up on such assignments may have just come back from covering a fire or a war in a foreign country," he adds.
The $50 million Newseum is funded and operated by The Freedom Forum, an international foundation dedicated to free speech and a free press. Before the Newseum opened, consultants estimated that a visit would take about 90 minutes. In fact, visits are averaging from two to three hours.
Under the video wall, visitors can scan the headlines and front pages of some 70 daily newspapers around the world.
In the interactive newsroom, touch-screen computer stations help visitors learn to think like an editor or an investigative journalist and to understand the constraints of the job. (Small criticism: The food in the Newseum's snack bar or New Byte Caf is too good. If you want authenticity, try eating out of vending machines.)
In one computer game, visitors try to figure out who is responsible for toxic cheese in a local school. (Lesson: When you hit a blind alley, just back up and try another way.)
Another offers choices of which stories should go into the paper - with lots of ways to make mistakes and miss the big story of the day. Visitors can also try reading a teleprompter as a television anchor and take home a tape of their performance.
On Sept. 6, the main interest was an afternoon panel with three working journalists on "Princess Diana: the Making of a Celebrity." Most of the questions focused not on how the news media had made a celebrity, but on whether they had contributed to destroying one by too relentless a pursuit.
"Isn't a famous person ever off duty as a celebrity?" asks one visitor. "Why couldn't the press just respect Diana's privacy?" followed up another.
"It's a very difficult line to draw. I know too many politicians who want to be covered only the way they want to be," said BBC correspondent Tom Carver.
"One of the problems the royal family has had is that courtiers have cut them off from the oxygen of the media. There were no newspapers allowed at Balmoral [estate in Scotland, where the royal family had been spending an August vacation]. Until [Prime Minister] Tony Blair called the queen, they didn't understand how big the public response had been to Diana's death," he added.
But both questioners and journalists agreed that the media still crossed the line into what should be a realm of privacy. An example: Was it really necessary for ABC News to tell its viewers that a participant in the memorial ceremony for the Princess of Wales had had an eating disorder?
As visitors exit the interactive newsroom, they pass an unintended and ironic counterpoint to the debate over the press and privacy: an exhibit of Harry Benson's warm and stunning photographs of presidential families, called "First Families: an Intimate Portrait From the Kennedys to the Clintons."
These photos seem to reach deep into the heart of family life, not to shock or titillate but to reveal something of the character of a politician and his family. If the families did not choose these photos, they might have.
Here John and Jackie share a private joke, Jimmy Carter hoses down a pavement, Bill and Hillary embrace on a hammock, and Pat Nixon brushes back a tear.
This exhibit is on display until Oct. 12 and then travels to Newseum, New York. Afterward it will tour presidential libraries through 2000.
Visitors with a day to spend in Washington already have a crush of museums and monuments to see, but museum officials say many are adding the Newseum to their list. In Arlington, Va., it's a short walk across the Potomac River from Georgetown, or two subway stops from the White House. Visits here differ every time because what's happening in the world changes.