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Arts Journalism Not on Display at Newseum

The brand new temple of free speech, Washington’s Newseum, opened Friday to less than enthusiastic reviews, most noticeably from the New York Times, who, along with the paper’s owners, the Ochs-Sulzberger Family, were heavy contributors to the museum. Such is the nature of a free and fickle press.

Aside from journalists’ naturally contrarian tendencies, there may be more to their naysaying than simply objective reporting. Perhaps there is no surer sign of your cause being equated with cataclysm than having a national monument erected in its memory. Native Americans and Jews endured wholesale slaughter of their people to get a museum; as we witness the wholesale slaughter of American industry, its loudest voices, the media, won’t go quietly. The first amendment is inscribed on the building’s marble facade like a tombstone erected to mourn a nation’s lost, outsized ideals.

Newseum Facade

Another New York Times article notes quotes Charles L. Overby, chief executive of the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit underwriting the project, with this frightening statistic:

“Our annual survey shows that 40 percent of the American public believes the press has too much freedom,” he said, adding that the museum’s job is to educate — in an engaging way.

It’s not the idea of the Newseum that gives me chills; after all, if no one’s actually reading newspapers on their own anymore, how else will we force schoolchildren to have contact with them? It’s elements like the Newseum’s oddball collection of journalistic ephemera–Wonkette’s slippers? Really? Perez Hilton’s hoodie wasn’t available?–that make it sound like a newsroom version of the Hard Rock Cafe. Even its Wolfgang Puck-helmed restaurant is named “The Source.” Perhaps it’s too much to expect the stuffed head of Hunter S. Thompson hanging over the bar, but Puck ought to, at the very least, offer a sampling of “deadline delicacies,” you know, creative vending machine fare, whiskey served in a metal file drawer, that sort of thing (I’m also assuming here that the Newseum Residences, apartments that rent from $1,700 to $6,500 a month aren’t tricked out to look like cubicles).

So what does any of this have to do with arts journalism? Well, judging by the exhibits on display, very little. Placing the Newseum in Washington, D.C. ensures its focus will be on all things political/governmental. And while arts journalists may not be decapitated in pursuit of our stories (though I can think of a few theaters who wouldn’t at all mind that outcome for some of us), we are certainly suffering a merciless thinning of our ranks as we soldier on mightily to interpret cultural semaphores from around the globe. Arts journalists are not the bastard children of the news, we are its interpreters, often sensing a change in the winds before bureaucracy’s cogs even begin to turn. (Weimar culture, anyone?) And though we rarely make the front pages, it would have been nice if the Newseum’s curators acknowledged the importance of arts coverage in journalism as well.

Right now we’re being outsourced, but I suppose once we’ve been fully eliminated, the voids in our culture and the chronicling of our cultural history will serve as our memento mori, and it will quickly become evident how important we were after all.

G.B. Shaw John RuskinKenneth Tynan

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One Response

  1. Drama Queen,

    News is relative.

    ‘Whereof one does not know. Thereof one must remain silent.’

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