New Museum Tells Media Story

Artifacts, history and ethical dilemmas mark journalism's story.

ByNitya Venkataraman

April 10, 2008 — -- Part First Amendment memorial, part shrine to the Fourth Estate, Friday's grand opening in Washington, D.C., of the Newseum -- that's a museum dedicated to news -- has been a $450 million investment eight years in the making.

Glass-encased and protected by a 74-foot-high outward-facing marble engraving of the First Amendment, Washington's newest museum and tourist destination sits on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol. It is the new home of journalistic artifacts and traditions and dilemmas that have defined a profession.

It will also be the new home to ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" when the TV program begins broadcasting live from the Newseum April 20.

Outside the main entrance, "Today's Front Pages," a daily-changing exhibit of newspaper front pages from around the world, works in conjunction with an online gallery of the same name.

Inside, via print, video, audio and digital media spread over seven floors of exhibits, galleries and theaters, the Newseum aims to tell the story of world news coverage through the lens of an ever-changing industry.

It is a fair bet that the Newseum is unlike any museum you have visited before.

"For us, we're a little different than many museums, even many history museums, in that we always start with our story," said Carrie Christoffersen, the Newseum's curator of collections.

Citing the conceptualization and creation of its various exhibits ranging from the Berlin Wall gallery to the ever-changing speed of news, Christoffersen said, "We have a story we want to tell ? and we start with the story."

"Some ideas sing instantly and you know they're going to be winners. And some take a little more time to bubble up and really get fleshed out and some fall by the wayside for sure," she said, describing the process as one filled with conversation and collaboration.

Alongside the industry professionals and media scholars involved in the creation of the Newseum exhibits, the curator said, "you have people like me who are 'thing-obsessed.'"

Christoffersen said, "I come at things from a notion that people are able to connect to an event or story through material culture, through the 'stuff' that we have."

In the case of the Berlin Wall, the exhibit features the largest collection of the wall outside of Germany with eight original sections of the dividing structure alongside examination of how journalism dealt with the 30-year history of the wall.

The eastward-facing facade of the wall remains clean; the west side covered with graffiti, as a guard tower looms ominously nearby.

A timeline within the exhibit details 28 years between the wall's erection in 1961 to its historic fall in 1989 using photographic images.

In addition to telling the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Newseum also spends considerable space on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Christoffersen describes 9/11 as "pinnacle events in people's lives and they can stop and talk instantaneously about where they were or what they were doing or how they found out about both those things happening."

The Newseum's 9/11 Gallery features the remains of the broadcast antenna that sat atop the north tower of the World Trade Center against the backdrop of more than 100 front pages dated Sept. 12, 2001 from newspapers around the world.

In an enclave just off the main gallery, a theater displays a running loop of a Newseum-produced documentary with first-person accounts from the journalists who covered the attacks and their aftermath on the ground.

Both events, she says, "were sort of natural for us in terms of just the broad reach of news and how it impacts everybody's life."

On the second floor, adjacent to the Interactive Newsroom where visitors can play reporter in print, on camera or behind the scenes, is the Newseum's Ethics Center.

Central to the Ethics Center is a competitive game where teams face some of journalism's most thorny ethical dilemmas and answer questions against a running clock.

Depicting both the strengths and weaknesses of journalists was important to the Newseum, says the curator.

"Journalism at its best is fair and balanced," said Christoffersen, "but it has to, by the same token, recognize that if that were easy to achieve it wouldn't be something that needed discussing. And to discuss it you need to show the other side."

A frosted glass wall stretching from the third to fourth floor of the Newseum, a tribute to the industry's fallen, is etched with the names of journalists who have died on assignment.

The museum's CEO Charles Overby called it "the heart of the Newseum" at the memorial's dedication in early April.

The inauguration ceremony honored the journalists who had died most recently, including 66 journalists who died in 2006 and 92 who died in 2007. Seventy-nine of those men and women died in Iraq during those two years.

Helen Thomas, a veteran White House correspondent, began the ceremony by reading the names of journalists who died between 1837 and 1943. Eight other journalists read names of those who died through 2005, a chime sounding after each name.

ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff, the ceremony's keynote speaker, said he had many close friends listed on the wall. Woodruff was injured in Iraq in 2006 when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle.

"We need, without question, to support those journalists," Woodruff said. "Someone needs to go and cover the soldiers, the journalists and especially the people of Iraq and what's happening there," he said.

ABC News' Kate Barrett contributed to this report.

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