Etched into one of the walls of The Newseum, Washington, D.C.'s massive media museum, is a quote from H.L. Mencken. It says this: "I know of no human being who has a better time than an eager and energetic young reporter."
As I wandered through the Newseum, I saw hundreds of quotes along these lines, each celebrating journalists as the guardians of democracy, and the newspaper as the noblest of institutions. The museum, a six story tribute to Journalism, shows us fine reporters in action, as they grill political figures, charge headfirst into danger zones, and give Americans the facts, and only the facts.
The museum also happens to be sponsored by The New York Times. This may be part of the reason why it chose to use the above quote by Mencken rather than one of the devastatingly cynical ones he was better known for, such as, for example:
"The average American newspaper, especially the so-called better sort, has the intelligence of a Baptist evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-bumper, the information of a high-school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer."
I'm not sure what a "boob-bumper" is, but I think Mencken's view of newspapers is clear enough.
The Newseum is a mammoth structure, and it does a fairly good job of illustrating just why mainstream media is such a letdown, even if it does so unintentionally. It's a shrine to the image that Times journalists seem to have of journalism as a sort of fourth branch of government. Throughout the building, journalists are laughably lionized, and their role in historical events is vastly overstated. For example, after a number of exhibits on the growth of newspapers, one room features a large chunk of the Berlin wall, and shows pictures of reporters getting the scoop on its having fallen.
The room seems to be trying to suggest that the journalists had some part in the saga of the Berlin Wall, as if a team of highly-trained columnists singlehandedly clawed at the wall until it came tumbling down.
But that's not all. Another features a piece of the Twin Towers, and every newspaper headline from across the world after September 11th, 2001, in order to prove the point that--well, I really have no idea what a 9/11 exhibit says about news.
In fact, much of the museum is like that. It's a curious mixture of general history and press history that runs through every major event of the last few hundred years as if to tell us "Don't forget, you wouldn't have heard about this if it weren't for newspapers!" It almost seems slightly offensive. Is The New York Times trying to brand itself as the true hero of 9/11 for telling us about it? It's as if they buy into the "tree falls in the forest" idea. If The New York Times hadn't taken pictures of the Berlin Wall falling, then the Berlin Wall wouldn't have fallen.
Now, if reading mainstream papers teaches us anything, it's that if there's one thing The New York Times loves, it's The New York Times. At the Times online shop, you can buy pink baby bibs with the paper's name on them. You can also get a copy of The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge, a book in which the Times tells you exactly which of the things you know are worthwhile and which are not. And at the Newseum gift shop, you can get anything from jigsaw puzzles of classic Times front pages to postcards that say "Trust Me, I'm a Journalist" on them. You cannot yet get a coffee mug shaped like Thomas Friedman's bloated head, but I'm sure it's on the way.
The rest of the museum is a similar tribute to the media's love for itself. Exhibits include a mousepad that Peter Jennings once used, a car that a journalist was once killed in, and a bank of cubicles that resemble an actual newsroom (inside the cubicles, computers allow you to answer survey questions along the lines of "In your opinion, what is it that makes journalists so glorious?")
Perhaps the crown jewel of this collection of media minutia is red sweatshirt that Helen Thomas "wore to a presidential press conference in 2006." It resides in a glass case. Next to the artifact itself is an accompanying photo of Helen in the sweatshirt at the conference to prove that it was, in fact, hers, and not just any old red sweatshirt. It's as if the Newseum people approached Helen Thomas and begged her for a contribution:
"Helen Thomas, you have a long and distinguished career in journalism, perhaps you could donate a worthy journalistic artifact to our Newseum."
"Sure, you can have one of my used sweatshirts."
And the Newseum curators, anxious to definitively prove that the media do not understand such concepts as humor, sarcasm, or irony, gladly accepted Ms. Thomas's generous offer, putting it next to the exhibit housing a piece of David Gregory's used chewing gum, as Helen Thomas walked away in fits of giggles.
The museum also manages to capture some of the essence of the establishment press's utter inability to comprehend or adapt to the internet age. In a small exhibit on blogs and the rise of internet journalism, the Newseum concludes that, as far as whether or not internet media will succeed, "nobody knows how the story will unfold."
But if The New York Times had been paying as much attention to the internet as some of us have over the past years, they would have seen exactly how the story is unfolding, and gained a fairly good idea as to where it's heading.
As I wandered further, I heard Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry" playing as the soundtrack to a First Amendment exhibit. Of course, this is a song whose lyrics savagely lampoon the ridiculousness of the media, something which the Newseum apparently did not realize.
Of course, it's understandable that the Newseum is excited about journalism; it is, after all, dedicated to that very subject. But the museum seems to gloss over any and all media failings, instead asking its visitors "What's your absolute favorite part of our newspaper?" instead of "Do you really like our newspaper at all?"
Despite this, I managed to find three areas of the museum which addressed media failures in any capacity. The first was in an exhibit about media conglomerates, which briefly discussed the emergence of corporate media, and pointed out the fact that six companies own 90 percent of the media. This was helpful, of course, but the way in which the information is presented makes it seem as if The New York Times is on yet another nostalgia trip for the lost golden age of journalism. Consider this quote:
"Increasingly, businesses with roots in journalism are disappearing, swallowed up by companies with little or no background in news." Sounds to me as if The New York Times isn't so much concerned about the fact that corporations are amassing greater and greater power as about the fact that corporations are usurping The New York Times.
The second section that in any way criticizes media is a brief display on tabloids and exploitation. It points to one specific instance in which the media noticeably failed: The coverage of "All OJ, All The Time." To prove this point, it shows several OJ Simpson-era sensationalist headlines, all from papers which, naturally, are not The New York Times.
That's it. No mention of The New York Times's complicity in building the case for the Iraq War via the articles of Judith Miller and Michael Gordon. No mention of bias, corrections, corporate influence over content, the media's love affair with the trivial, or the dangerous level of control news organizations have over public opinion. Nothing. Just a quick "Whoops, sorry about that" on the OJ trial.
The third section that portrayed the media as being in any way imperfect was the men's restroom. All along the bathroom walls were humorously mistaken or misleading newspaper headlines, like an investigative prenatal diet story titled "Babies are what the mother eats" or a legislative update called "Farmer Bill dies in house."
So that's it. Over six floors, we have a brief whine over increasing competitiveness, a section on why OJ should have been maybe three months' worth of stories rather than six, and a selection of amusing bathroom décor.
Newsweek put the museum's theme thusly: "The Newseum's message seems to be that journalists are heroes, newsgathering is sexy, and media matters." I'd agree with that, but I think may be even more self-promoting than Newsweek suggests. The Newseum constantly feels as if The New York Times is desperately trying to preserve its reputation in the face of competition, and rekindle the flame of a dead era. Blindsided by the Internet Age, and finally coming closer to realizing that Blogs Can Do It Better, the Timesdj has reacted in the only way it knows how: building a gigantic monument to itself.
I'll leave you with an H.L. Mencken quote on the magic of media: "A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier." Or there's always this old chestnut: "All successful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose. They never defend anyone or anything if they can help it; if the job is forced on them, they tackle it by denouncing someone or something else."
If only Mencken could see the Newseum. Perhaps he'd graciously donate a sweatshirt.