Museum highlights the newsmakers Bulletin: First attraction about the history of practice of news is opening tomorrow in Arlington, Va.


April 17, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Va. -- They have been bell-ringers and drum-beaters, smoke-signal senders and tablet scratchers. Storytellers all, conduits of the daily poop, held in low regard even in ancient days. As Sophocles said in 441 B.C.: "Nobody likes the bringer of bad news."

Not then, not now. Especially not now, what with their like having been so fruitful, so multiple and so noisy. Nowhere to run these days to escape the constant drumbeat: news, news, news, news.

Perhaps it was just a matter of time, then, before someone built a monument to the often vexing national conversation we call The News. It's called the Newseum, a $50 million explainer of the history and practice of journalism, featuring a 220-seat theater, interactive computers, a television studio, a display of 70 newspaper front pages updated daily and a monstrous wall of television screens that should satisfy even the most hopeless news junkie.

Located across the Potomac River from Washington in Rosslyn, the Newseum took five years to plan and build. Newseum executive director Peter S. Prichard says the hope is that the place will foster understanding between the public and the media, an often uneasy relationship.

Americans like their news and want lots of it, the surveys show. Unfortunately, they tend to view the people who deliver it with mistrust if not disdain. Put it this way: News reporters are right up there in public esteem with elected officials, lawyers and corporate executives.

Sophocles' observation suggests this attitude is a historic constant. But Prichard says an overheated news market has made matters worse, especially in electronic media.

"I do think the rise of so many news sources, the rise of what I call hypercompetition has contributed to the rise of mistrust," says Prichard, former editor-in-chief of USA Today. "There's been a lot of unfairness, and people see it and they don't like it."

The Newseum is the work of the Freedom Forum, an independent offspring of the Gannett Foundation, now worth $800 million, which is devoted to "free press, free speech and free spirit." Admission to the Newseum, which opens tomorrow, is also free, the better to encourage visitors and dissemination of the good news contained in the First Amendment.

A recent poll suggests that the lead item in the Bill of Rights might not pass if a referendum were held today. According to a survey of 1,500 Americans conducted for the Newseum in January, only one in three people agreed that "freedom of the press should be protected under all circumstances." Two-thirds agreed that there are times when the media should be prevented from publishing or broadcasting certain information. Then there was this troubling statistic: One of three Americans could not name any of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment -- press, speech, religion, assembly, petitioning the government for redress of grievances.

All of which leads the Freedom Forum to conclude that the First Amendment is in trouble. It's anybody's guess whether visitors' attitudes will be changed by a visit to the Newseum, the first museum of its kind. There are museums of broadcasting, but none devoted to the history of news gathering.

One trick in designing the Newseum was deciding what to omit, says Ralph Appelbaum, president of Ralph Appelbaum Associates Inc. of New York, which also designed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The history of news, says Appelbaum, "is almost the history of human consciousness as opposed to the history of a particular industry."

The result of five years of planning and building is certainly lively. And like a democracy, noisy.

That was the idea, says Appelbaum. He says the Newseum was intended to be the opposite of one social historian's description of the typical museum as a place of "hushed, didactive strenuousness."

The Newseum is anything but hushed. Most exhibits move or talk or invite button-pushing and play-acting. Visitors may wonder if they're in a museum or Circuit City.

The Newseum's star attraction, the giant News Wall, ("a living mural of the global village," the public relations material says) may dazzle some and encourage others to immediately sign up for a silent retreat. Visitors may be simultaneously bombarded by nine broadcasts at once, arrayed side-by-side across a screen 42 yards long and 12 feet high. There President Clinton waves from the Rose Garden; there bodies are carried away from a plane wreck; there Brit Hume, his head the size of a Volvo, reports from the White House lawn.

Below the News Wall is a gallery of interactive exhibits, ranging from the journalistic version of a penny arcade photo booth ("Step right up and videotape your very own White House news report . . .") to computer games designed to put the visitors into the shoes of a reporter or editor.

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