I have experienced the heart of patriotism. In simplest terms, patriotism is devotion to one’s country. It’s no surprise that the heart of patriotism lives in our nation’s capital. No, it’s not the Capitol nor the Supreme Court. Certainly not the White House. More important than the location, however, is that this shining illustration of patriotism is going away at the end of this year.
The Newseum lies on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. From its terrace on the top floor, you can look down Pennsylvania toward the Capitol. What a perfect location for the Fourth Estate, the moniker first coined by Edmund Burke in 1787. The Fourth Estate observes and reports on the political process. It’s another check and balance for democracy.
This news journalism museum is immediately identifiable by a row of the world’s front pages of the day running the length of the building. Look up. Engraved on a tall granite panel running the height of the building is the First Amendment. These 45 words are the essence of American democracy, and I will see them repeated many times and in many variations inside the Newseum.
I didn’t tour the Newseum in the recommended way. I stumbled on a brief orientation film in the Hubbard Broadcasting Concourse at the end of my journey. The film suggested starting on the sixth level and working your way down. Oops!
Much as I approach life, I forged my own path and started with the first floor Pulitzer Prize Photographic Gallery. It seemed so innocent, photographs since 1942 lining the walls. But they were more than photographs. They were stories of humanity. Some were whimsical. Others offered hope—children playing in the Chicago projects, the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, moving children to freedom through a barbed wire fence.
Noted photographer Eddie Adams, himself a Pulitzer Prize winner, once said, “If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rips out your heart, that’s a good picture.” I saw many good pictures that day. By the end, they blinded me with my own tears.
I revisited my early childhood with the emotional appeals from photos capturing the Kent State shootings and the Vietnam War. I relived the day of the Oklahoma City bombing with the image of a first responder carrying Baylee Almon from the devastated Murrah building.
When a photograph reached out and grabbed me, which was often, I could read about the photographer and the circumstances surrounding the shooting of the prize-winning photograph. The famine pictures were painful to see. Then I came to a photograph of a vulture stalking an emaciated young girl in the Sudan. This 1994 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography haunted me. Apparently, it also haunted its 33-year-old photographer. Months after the Pulitzer, Kevin Carter took his own life.
Had I followed the recommended route, I would have started with the beginnings of American democracy in 1776 when the Pennsylvania Evening Post became the first newspaper to publish the Declaration of Independence. I saw how the Constitution, created in 1788, was anchored by the First Amendment a few years later.
Exhibit after exhibit documents how the First Amendment provided the rights that our democracy is based upon—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Rights that changed history. Rights that led to women getting the right to vote. Rights that fought segregation and wars. With Watergate, these rights showed Americans that no one was above the law.
I passed a quote – Journalism is the first draft of history – attributed to Washington Post publisher Phil Graham. If he wasn’t the first to say it, he certainly made us understand it.
The fourth floor 9-11 Gallery demands another hard look at journalism and democracy. A timeline of that fateful day circles around a mangled piece of the broadcast tower from the first World Trade Center tower. Newspaper front pages from around the world wallpaper a wall two stories high. The headlines and the photos convey the shock in reporting the news.
The Newseum didn’t just show history. It also offered a sobering view of the current status of free press around the world. A world map lights up green (freedom of the press), yellow (partial freedom), and red (no freedom of the press). Green is not the majority color. And if that isn’t a wakeup call, then the Journalists Memorial is an ear-splitting alarm. Reporting the news can be a dangerous job whether you’re reporting wars or you’re reporting on governments that don’t value transparency. Over 2,300 journalists around the world have died on the job.
Any doubts about the important role journalists play in society are quickly erased in the Bloomberg News Gallery, a collection of non-print news from radio to the Internet. I settle into a chair and watch television footage of 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombing. I witness change agents in action from the mid-1960s—James Meredith getting shot during his March against Fear and the Freedom Riders exposing segregation.
Weighed down by the seriousness, I find some lightness at the NBC News Interactive Newsroom, where children of all ages sit in the broadcaster’s seat to deliver the news on camera. The power of television is demonstrated once again with the Jon Stewart exhibit. News has been delivered with a dose of comedy since the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour of the late 1960s. Excerpts of it are running along with clips from Saturday Night Live, the Stephen Colbert Show, and of course, The Daily Show. All showed me what an impact comedy has had in introducing people to current events. Yes, sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and then you take steps to learn more about issues that affect you.
At the end of December, the Newseum will no longer stand guard on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is closing its doors. This non-profit museum just doesn’t have the numbers of visitors it needs to sustain itself. It faces intense competition from the Smithsonian museums—all free—standing just hundreds of feet away along the National Mall.
The Newseum is rumored to reopen its doors in another city someday. I doubt it will have the same impact that it does on 555 Pennsylvania Avenue. I hope I’m wrong. We need this reminder of patriotism in action.
Until then, if you have the opportunity to visit the Newseum, I strongly recommend it. Just look for these words– Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.