The Newseum—Vainglorious Journalism Leads to Triumphalist History

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The Newseum sits on Pennsylvania Ave. in the District of Columbia next door to the Canadian embassy about halfway from the White House to the Capitol. A magnificent architectural accomplishment in glass and some white metal (aluminum?), it contains a vast 7-story atrium. Everything that can be transparent is transparent. The parable for the news media seems rather obvious. And you can enjoy this Disneyesque production for a mere $21.95, for two days’ admission. If this seems a bad value, it’s probably because all the Smithsonian museums are free and have nicer gift shops.

Inside, arranged like the Stations of the Cross, are the tiers of exhibits, interactive playgrounds, working studios, more exhibits, a gift shop, and a food court. Unlike Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré or Guadalupe, the faithful are taken to the top of the mountain by an all-glass joy of an elevator. And then descend by ramps and steps to worship at each Station of the Press. Make no mistake. This is not a rational or logical endeavor. This is a monument to one of the religious cults of our nation–the so-called “Free Press.” As such, its pretentions are not limited by either fact or truth, but go to serve the great myth that is American “constitutional” government by the People. A basically good idea executed rather haphazardly, compared to what it promised.

A casual viewer may think that every major event in the last 200 years was initiated and orchestrated by the press. Further reflection shows that, even when events occurred unexpectedly, the initial and follow-up press coverage defined the public memory and archival record of the events, including multi-generational effects (e.g., future history). As an example:

We are shown how the rogue bureaucrat J. Edgar Hoover, could infiltrate the highest levels of our government through corruption, criminal conspiracy, and blackmail, even as a feckless press elevated him as a national icon of progressive law enforcement and public safety. Nowhere in this paean to Hoover and the press of the day, heavily sponsored it appears by the FBI, did I note reflection or self-criticism or even comprehension of the possibility that the press had been gullible co-conspirators in Hoover’s aggrandizement, which so distorted the realization of our national values throughout most of the 20th century and linger with us today.

There are many exhibits presenting a collective, synthetic record of events assembled from selected press reports. Where a death blow was dealt to all human freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution in the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, the Newseum is silent. On as issue of grave importance and representing serious injury to the press, the press is silent, not only in reaction, but in acknowledgment of the destructive reality. They might as well be dead.

And so the press, with its collective ignorance and cultural biases, records the events of time. The stories and, finally, myths that arise from this shallow sloppiness become fixed in the minds of people and define what is considered to have been true, even it, as often happens, the press record bears no meaningful or logical relationship to the reality of the event.

The serious question raised by this subtle distortion of reality in the mainstream media is how it affects the development and interpretation of history, our national myth. For historians will draw on recorded data, and the mainstream media produce more data and content than any other private agency. So it is easy to see that the slant of the historical record is shaped by prevailing media assumptions of the period being analyzed. While a historian may find arguments and events advantaging one side or another in some dispute, his analysis may not penetrate to the underlying errors of thinking that distort the positions on both sides of a dispute. So when the media focus on a particular event uncritically, this naive approach tends to define the simplistic story of a complex issue. History is largely written by the winners of any dispute. Triumphalism is a great failing of the human spirit. And from this emerges bulshyte, not history.

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

When we examine the so-called historical narratives of our own or other cultures, we quickly find much that is commonly believed that has no basis in reality at all. One need only consider the legends of the founding of our nation and the roles of George Washington to know that this is not the Native American view, not the French-Canadian view, and certainly not the Primitive Mormon view of what the United States is and what it stands for in terms of “freedom.” Our own national myth, enshrined in endless hours of fantasy contemplating and analyzing such delusions as “manifest destiny” and “states’ rights,” begins to resemble Horatio Greenough’s half-naked statue of George, a fitting symbol for the founder of a nation that glories in empire rather than service to humanity, no matter how little it relates to the man himself.


—Dan Massey