Saying Goodbye to the Newseum, but Not the Press

Over the past 11 years, visitors to the Newseum in Washington, D.C. stopped in front of a wall that displayed a quote from former New York Times publisher Philip Graham that has become a favorite among both journalists and lovers of journalism: “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” 

As visitors walked past these words, they would come across decades of newspaper front pages that have since become telling historical documents, from a 1787 copy of The Maryland Gazette containing the new United States Constitution to a copy of the 1948 Chicago Daily Tribune mistakenly announcing, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” just below the photograph of a victorious Harry S. Truman holding the same paper. 

Philip Graham’s quote as presented in the Newseum. Photo courtesy of Celine Castronuovo.

Ingrained in the story of America is the story of journalism. It is the press that brought news to people who would have otherwise lacked access. It is the press that took risks and won the right to publish noteworthy government documents to the public despite attempts from political leaders to silence them. It is the press that stood at the front lines of wars, terrorist attacks and mass demonstrations, providing necessary information to American citizens by way of print, television and the internet. 

After six years of planning and an investment of $450 million, the Newseum opened in 2008 hoping to commemorate the centuries-long tradition of a free press. It also served as a reminder of the important role journalists play as the fourth estate, standing in its memorable glass building on Pennsylvania Avenue just blocks away from the Capitol Building and along the presidential inauguration route to the White House. 

At a time when journalism layoffs and declining revenues spelled uncertainty for the future of newspapers, the Newseum served as a testament to the important role the press has played. The Newseum’s presence, especially for student journalists like MediaFile’s staff, forced us to consider how this role will continue to evolve as we enter the world of journalism.

Newspaper front pages from throughout America’s history as presented in the Newseum’s exhibit. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons.

However, on December 31, this monument to the press and the First Amendment officially closed its doors to the public after years of financial difficulties. 

Initial reports on the Newseum’s closure came in January 2019 when the Freedom Forum, the museum’s founder and primary funder, announced it would sell the building to Johns Hopkins University for $373 million to use for its D.C.-based graduate programs. 

In October, the Newseum confirmed its fate when it released a statement saying that it would close at the end of 2019, adding that the museum had “struggled financially for several years” and that it could “no longer sustain operations” at its current location. Sonya Gavankar, director of public relations for the Newseum, told Smithsonian Magazine at the time that any artifacts on loan would be returned to their owners, and that everything in the permanent collection would be moved to an archive facility outside Washington until a location is determined for public display.

On its last day open to the public, the Newseum tweeted from its official account, thanking the millions of visitors who flocked to the landmark during its 11-year tenure.  

 

Mikaela Lefrak, reporter for NPR’s Washington affiliate WAMU, analyzed in a December newscast that the Newseum’s closure was a “metaphor of a museum dedicated to the free press shutting down right in the middle of what some call a crisis period for journalism.” Lefrak reflected that this crisis includes an environment in which “local news outlets are struggling to stay afloat, and the line between unbiased reporting and fake news is getting murkier by the minute.” 

The Newseum not only educated visitors on the First Amendment but also showed how integral the press is for documenting the world’s most pivotal events, events that changed the course of human history, with an exhibit showcasing pieces of the former Berlin Wall and newspaper front pages published in the days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

Pieces of the Berlin Wall as presented in the Newseum. Photo courtesy of public domain.

Front pages in the Newseum’s 9/11 exhibit. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons.

As student journalists studying in the nation’s capital, it is almost impossible for us to ignore that the Newseum closed at a time of increased hostility to the press, both within the U.S. and around the world. 

Its closure also comes as Donald Trump has become the third president in U.S. history to be impeached and is concurrently bringing the country to the brink of war with Iran. When bad-faith actors use political tribalism to distort the facts in unprecedented ways, it becomes more essential than ever that quality journalism serves as a factual guide amid the noise.

Furthermore, the nation’s founders extolled the importance of a free press to a strong, American democracy. One Newseum exhibition cited Thomas Jefferson’s comment in 1787 that if given a choice between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

It is important to remember that while the Newseum may have shuttered its doors, a free and independent press remains an integral element of our democracy. The Newseum’s closure may have come following financial crises within the journalism industry and increased hostility toward reporters, but even our founding fathers recognized that our democracy could not function properly without the press. The closure of a museum cannot erase the legacy of journalism throughout our nation’s history and the essential role it will continue to play in the future. 

As journalists, we will continue to report on the front lines, ask leaders difficult questions, tell stories from those who may not otherwise have a voice and, most importantly, we will continue to write the first rough draft of history.

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