Why a Journalism Museum Makes Sense

When the Newseum opened last week in Washington, D.C., more than a few critics pointed out that it was a strange time to throw a party. And indeed there is a certain irony to debuting a seven-story, $450 million museum of journalism at a time of budget cuts, shrinking revenues and contracting newsrooms. Last week the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported that 2,400 full-time newspaper jobs were lost in 2007, the largest annual drop in 30 years. Meanwhile, less than one person in five believes what he reads in print, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research organization, and a recent Sacred Heart University study found that nearly nine in 10 Americans believe that journalists are actively biased, one way or another.

But with public faith in the mainstream media on the wane, it may be smart to build a temple to journalism as a mammoth public relations tool for the industry. This may explain why the Newseum was able to net $122 million in seed money from major media outlets that are simultaneously slashing personnel and shuttering bureaus. Time Warner, ABC, NBC, Bloomberg, Hearst, News Corp., and the New York Times Company, among other major media organizations and families, each anted up the $5 million minimum gift. (The Washington Post Company, which owns Newsweek, will cover the costs of admittance for groups of schoolchildren in the Post's circulation area for the first year.)

"It was easy," said Newseum president Peter Prichard of the fund-raising effort. "We told them what was going to be in the museum and they said, 'We need that'."

The Newseum's major galleries and theaters bear the names of these "founding partners"—a sponsorship scenario familiar from professional sports stadiums, which bear names like Tropicana Field, Petco Park and Jobbing.com Arena. There's the NBC News Interactive Newsroom, the Bloomberg TV and Radio Gallery, and the ABC News Changing Exhibits Gallery, among others. This kind of commercialization seems like the kind of thing that draws sneers from newsniks. Instead, it's drawing crowds: 3,000 journalists to the opening-night gala.

The Newseum's message seems to be that journalists are heroes, newsgathering is sexy, and media matters. In the Comcast 9/11 gallery, for instance, visitors learn from a giant quote on the wall that journalists are "people who run toward disaster," like cops and firefighters. Emblazoned on another wall is this quote from H. L. Mencken: "I know of no human being who has a better time than an eager, energetic young reporter." In another quote on display, Hillary Clinton dubs journalists "democracy's heroes." Of the more than 6,000 artifacts, the vast majority are emblems of great work: Thomas Paine's writing desk, Bob Woodruff's flak jacket, Helen Thomas's red sweater and the hotel door from the Watergate break-in. The gift shop sells compendiums of great journalism, as well as souvenir reporter's notebooks, press passes, and the unofficial uniform of foreign correspondents: brown multipocket vests.

"We're going to tell stories of heroism, of struggle, of how difficult it is to be a journalist," says vice president of marketing Susan Bennett, who also oversees exhibit development. "Because I don't think people realize how little journalists are paid, how many are killed and how few are famous."

The profession's low points get scant attention. Three museum attendants had to be asked before a reporter, on a recent visit, could find out whether the museum included any references to famous journalism scandals. "It's not really an exhibit," a manager finally said, pointing downstairs to what turned out to be a video screen near the basement-level bathrooms. The short film makes note of frauds such as Jayson Blair of the New York Times and collective screw-ups, like the false report that 12 trapped West Virginia miners were found alive in 2006. (The narrator, an avuncular newsman named Gordon Petersen, lays the blame for most journalistic failings on a few bad apples and deadline pressure.) Only a collection of New Yorker cartoons lampooning the media lands some genuine punches, hitting the industry for hype, fake trend-spotting, thin data and self-congratulation. But the cartoons are displayed in a space dominated by a 40-by-22-foot high-def video screen flashing historic battle photos and front-page headlines overlaid by the message "News is … War."

Promoting the glory while burying the bad is perhaps inevitable in a museum that's funded in significant part by the very institutions it features. Which is, of course, not unusual. America's Peanut Farmers pay for ads that offer a "friendly reminder" that peanuts are a protein-packed snack, while America's Cotton Producers have for years touted cotton as the "Fabric of Our Lives." Perception management companies such Burson-Marsteller and Edelman have built similar campaigns to polish the public images of downtrodden industries, like oil and gas. It's just that the PR tone clashes with journalism's ethos of objectivity and skepticism. The Newseum says its mission is to "promote a better understanding of news and journalism." "If the museum helps convince people that journalists produce something of value," says Dalton Conley, a New York University sociologist who studies social status, it could increase the levels of trust and appreciation the industry enjoys. "But there's also an ironic tension at play: by advertising itself, journalism could come across as less professional for pandering to clients, rather than performing for peers."

The 15,000 or so journalists whose jobs have blinked out of existence in the last decade may rightfully complain that their profession channeled a fortune into a museum rather than, say, an endowed newspaper. But if the museum's message sinks in, it may have held off the day when journalism has to write its own obituary.