Description And Comments

Not to Be Missed

  • Today’s Front Pages (Level 6)
  • News History Gallery (Level 5)
  • Big Screen Theater (Level 3)
  • Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery (Level 1)

I (Len) love both the Newseum and news. Google News is one of the first things I read every morning; and we get the NY Times for the Sunday Styles ads, and to keep Paul Krugman off the streets.

Reviewing the Newseum, then, is essentially a review of modern news reporting: a core slice of it is excellent, and reminds you that the Fourth Estate is vital to a functional democracy. The rest of it you’ve probably seen for free on the Web.

The Newseum’s Today’s Front Pages exhibit, on Level 6, is an example. In its one long hallway hangs today’s full-color front page from 80s newspapers, including one from every U.S. state and selected editions from around the world. Thirty year ago, this would have been an amazing display, available only to large corporations with multi-million dollar data and communications systems. Even today, it’s still impressive to look at. But we all know that those pages are less current than the newspapers’ own websites, which we get on our phones for free.

The other striking thing about these front pages is the relative homogeneous content, even on slow news days. It’s essentially the same set of stories from the same relatively small set of sources, perhaps with a different headline based on the paper’s house style. In that respect, the Newseum overlooks one of the news media’s strengths, which is usually local reporting. It might be more interesting to show the front page of these papers’ section B (usually the local news) instead of A.

That said, there are several excellent exhibits in the Newseum, many of which should provoke a discussion on the current state of news reporting, what its goals should be, and how news organizations should be paid for their work.

One of the best exhibits is Reporting Vietnam, also on Level 6. The media’s coverage of the war in Vietnam, especially the in-country television reporting, had a major influence on how Americans viewed the war. Television news wasn’t widespread for World War II or the Korean War, and negative stories about those conflicts were frequently censored or suppressed by either the U.S. government or the news organizations doing the reporting.

Vietnam was different. It was covered by television crews delivering same-day footage of front-line battles, often sending images of wounded or dead soldiers and civilians directly to American living rooms during dinner. Those images evoked a more powerful anti-war sentiment than any text description could hope to attain.

The other difference in Vietnam was that the same communication systems that allowed TV images to be sent around the globe, also enabled reporters to fact-check the stories coming out of Washington and the military. While that didn’t happen immediately, over time that and the nightly images of dead Americans eventually turned public opinion against the war. The anti-war sentiment culminated in the Washington Post’s publication of secret Defense Department documents in 1971, known as The Pentagon Papers, which showed the government had systematically lied about the war effort from the very beginning.

Another great piece of this exhibit is at the end - a typewritten letter from a reporter who covered the first war with Iraq, giving instructions to future reporters on how to behave while embedded with the military. It can be summed up as “Don’t be a jerk; Remember these soldiers have families; Help out when you can; and Don’t do anything alone.” It’s a great piece of writing.

Another good exhibit is News History Gallery, on Level 5. This is a collection of more than 300 important newspaper front pages from the middle of the 15th century to today, covering events as they happened, from the U.S. Revolution, to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassinations, moon landings, and 9/11.

You’re probably familiar with many of the images of the famous front pages, because they’ve been used in period-appropriate films and television for years. (If you can’t envision the newspaper that Harry S. is holding up when we say “Dewey Defeats Truman,” something’s wrong.) What’s good about browsing these newspapers, though, is that you get to see the other articles that also merited front-page coverage on the same day as these historic events. In many cases, the events take up every available inch of space. Other events, such as the first print reference to the sport of baseball, are a couple of sentences buried among other minutiae.

The one downside to these newspapers is that they’re incredibly difficult to read. Some of them aren’t in English, others are in tiny fonts, and all of them are inside a dimly lit hall. They’re all available in electronic form nearby, but that only points out that you could have read many of these online at home, too, probably for free.

Another impressive hall is the Big Screen Theater, also on Level 5. This houses a series of huge video displays, each tuned to a different news source from around the world. On days with major stories, it’s interesting to see how each news organization covers those events. On slow news days, which happened when we visit, you realize that 24-hour news channels have to produce 24 hours of content, whether it’s all newsworthy or not. Regardless, you could easily spend half an hour here just catching up.

Unofficial Tip: The bathrooms’ tile walls have real, badly-written newspaper headlines printed on them, such as “Panel Urges Cloning Ethics Board” and “Woman Found Dead in Trunk Kept to Herself, Neighbors Say”.

Another attraction worth seeing, on Level 3, is the 9/11 Gallery, a collection of newspapers, videos, and artifacts from the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001. One wall of the display is dedicated to front pages from national and international newspapers, covering the events. Along with these are videos showing how live television covered these attacks as they happened, plus interviews with survivors and news crews that were there.

Finally, stop by the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery on Level 1 before you leave. As with the famous newspapers, you’ll probably recognize many of these iconic photos. What makes a visit worthwhile is the background stories about how each photo was taken.

Touring Tips

The Newseum’s suggested itinerary starts with the Concourse, one floor below the museum’s entrance on Level 1. From there you’ll take an elevator to Level 6 and work your way back down to the exit on Level 1. It’s a good touring strategy, and the one we recommend.

The Newseum has a small café on the ground floor. The food isn’t bad, and service is good. It’s better (and probably less crowded) than what’s available at Air & Space, but not as good as the cafeteria at the American Indian museum.


555 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, D.C.
Pennsylvania Ave
Archives/Navy Memorial

Daily 9am-5pm

Adults $24.95; Seniors $19.95; Ages 7-18 $14.95; Under 7 Free