The Idolatry of Journalism

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
The Newseum is a monument of absurd self-praise.

Gaze upon the colossal edifice at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue in the national capital and you might get the impression that something really important is happening, or at least being recreated, inside. Pass through the Newseum’s doors, however, and your excitement may quickly be doused: It’s essentially a building full of stories you could easily find on the Internet, dull games, and large corporate displays of self-celebration. There’s a Bancroft Family Ethics Center (“kiosks allow you to tackle real-life reporting dilemmas and see how journalists and other visitors responded”), an NBC News Interactive Newsroom (“gives visitors a chance to play the role of a reporter or photographer”), and a New York Times Great Hall (“a continuous flow of news and free speech. Instant, breaking, historic news that is uncensored, diverse and free”). The privilege of strolling amid such gimmickry will cost you dearly — $25, in a city heaving with museums that cost nothing. The ticket price is higher than the Baseball Hall of Fame ($23) and the same as the (suggested) entry fee of America’s foremost repository of great painting and sculpture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Attractions such as these, and the slippers once worn by Wonkette (I couldn’t remember her name either; upon investigation, it’s Ana Marie Cox) haven’t exactly delivered the throngs. The Newseum is mainly an event space, colorful background for canape-chewers and champagne-sippers whose custom earned the place twice as much ($18 million) last year as did admissions ($7.8 million). Overall, it lost more than $8 million last year and won’t last much longer. Its proprietors are looking for a way to sell off the building and move its contents to environs more suited to their importance — say, a fruit stand out in Gaithersburg.

The seven-story Temple of the Hacks was a monument to folly from the day it opened in 2008. In nine years, it swallowed up $272 million from the nonprofit Freedom Forum, which was established by the late USA Today proprietor Al Neuharth and receives millions from outfits such as News Corp., the Ochs-Sulzberger family that owns the New York Times, ABC owner Disney, and NBC parent Comcast. Note that euphemistic name: Freedom Forum, not Journalism Forum. Such is the brand value of journalism today that it has to pretend-identify with a concept people actually like. Never mind that large media outfits such as most of those named above expend massive effort trying to reduce freedom, even freedom of expression, by beating a drum for hate-speech codes or, in the Citizens United case, taking the side of those who sought to ban films and books that might irritate powerful politicians such as Hillary Clinton.

The Newseum concept is the equivalent of me pasting my picture over Brad Pitt’s on the cover of People’s Sexiest Man Alive issue. Trappings don’t make idols. We go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, because we find the entertainers celebrated there to be such supreme talents that they become figures of awe, figures of myth. Knowing what Babe Ruth, or John Lennon, did, we might be inclined to gaze in wonderment upon the tools that served them, even the clothes they wore. But what did Ana Marie Cox do? I can’t think of a thing, except “appear on television,” and I’m something of an expert on her profession, having spent 25 years in it myself.

Because big-time journalism has completely lost the trust of Republicans and mostly lost the trust of moderates, the Newseum is a Pantheon of discredited, indeed largely reviled, gods. The industry’s response to the loathing of large sectors of the American public has been the same tack taken by the late-night comedians — to write off their previously broad audience and cater to the views of their remaining partisan one. The job becomes less to report facts than to push a chosen narrative. NBC’s Katy Tur, who once compared her job to that of a firefighter who rushes into a burning building, these days is using her platform to attack the citizens and imply they’re fools if they think a $1,000 bonus linked to the Trump tax cuts will help them in any way.

Journalists who swear they speak truth to power simply ignored the most consequential lie of the last ten years — “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it” — until it was too late to do anything about it, took power’s word for it when power insisted there was no IRS scandal (but pleaded the Fifth while doing so), and has spent more than a year breathlessly hyping a narrative of illegal collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia for which there is still no clear evidence.

The Newseum is a Pantheon of discredited, indeed largely reviled, gods.

It’s not that journalists don’t deserve any recognition for what they’ve done, it’s just that a $450 million cathedral of sanctimony isn’t quite the right fit. A better idea would have been an old-timey traveling carnival, featuring a dunking booth in which Andrea Mitchell, Candy Crowley, and Brian Ross take turns on the hot seat. Off to the side, there could be a shady rogue entertaining the children in that tent marked “Tall Tales with Brian Williams.” Dan Rather can sell tickets at the Fake But Accurate Funhouse.


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