March 25, 2023

DC’s Newseum gets it write

A suspended news helicopter hangs overhead
A suspended news helicopter hangs overhead

It takes four hours to get from Bethlehem to Washington, D.C., not including rest stops. The drive is scenic and long — until you reach Washington when suddenly the trip seems even longer as you navigate through the traffic snarls.Parking is atrocious. Trying to park a mini-bus is not easy. Parking meters are not run through text messages and parking garages only allow so much clearance.

After an extra hour of driving around the city and passing our final destination about six times, witnessing a car accident and a drug bust, we found a spot for the bus. It was time to immerse ourselves in the world of the highly interactive Newseum, a celebration of American journalism and its history

A constant barrage of news greets visitors. Headlines stream through the Hall of News next to a suspended news helicopter. Giant video screens call out instant and historic news embracing the First Amendment’s “freedom of the press” tagline.

There isn’t a perfect spot to start viewing the Newseum’s attractions. It would take several trips to figure it out and each trip would boast something new to see.

I began on the ground floor, a level below where we entered. The first sight was that of an enormous graffiti-ridden wall with immense historical significance – the Berlin Wall.

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization,” says Ronald Reagan from a projection screen on the wall opposite the structure. “Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Eight 12-foot-high concrete sections of wall stand tall as the largest display of unaltered portions of the original Berlin Wall described in Reagan’s best-remembered presidential speech.

Behind the wall stands a three-story East German guard tower. Inside it a small rectangle reads “Death Tower” and explains how soldiers used the tower to watch Checkpoint Charlie – Berlin’s best-known East-West crossing — and shoot civilians who attempted to climb over the wall to freedom.

Around the corner is an exhibit featuring dazzling photos from Pulitzer Prize winners. A little farther down the corridor is a theater and directly in front of it is an exhibit room named “G-Men and Journalists.”

Front pages from newspapers around the world are changed daily
Front pages from newspapers around the world are changed daily

This is the one of the hardest sections to face. Life-size cutouts of the world’s most famous gangsters greet you, not the gangsters of today’s world, but the original men in sharp suits, polished shoes and machine guns.

It’s not every day that you come face-to-face with “Machine Gun” Kelly, “Baby Face” Nelson and “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Nor is it a common occurrence to relive the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI pursuit of Public Enemy No. 1 — bank robber John Dillinger.

The exhibit showcases the FBI’s efforts to fight crime with more than 200 artifacts, all disturbingly well preserved. The Unabomber’s cabin sits in a corner, Patty Hearst’s coat and gun are on display, a Ku Klux Klan uniform stands in a glass case and the newspaper stories that tell the tales of these menaces grace the walls. The exhibit leaves one wondering whether we pay too much attention to criminals.

Elsewhere, parts from the engines and landing gear from the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center are suspended in the air and ash-stained firefighter gear stands below. The design is dramatic.

An elevator ride rockets our group to the sixth level of the Newseum. The open walkways and a quick stop on the observation deck drown out the misery from the exhibit I had just witnessed.

Walls are lined with all of “Today’s Front Pages” and I can’t help but feel sorry for the person who has to change all the slots for newspapers digitally transmitted from all over the world every day.

A temporary exhibit called “Every Four Years” adds a lighter counterpoint to the darker aspects of the Newseum. A small room plays “The Colbert Report” across from Stephen Colbert’s famed Dorito suit. Mad Magazine comics and the Onion headlines are displayed on the wall. Political satire rules in the room, bringing forth guffaws of laughter from visitors.Faces of presidents and presidential hopefuls dominate the rest of the exhibit.

One level down, the history of news is preserved. The first press stands proudly. Books under glass cases are read via touch screens. Artifacts like quills and ink, typewriters and other tools of the trade explain why the tools were important to journalists.

A full day in the Newseum is not enough time to read, listen and learn. The archive of news is not dry or boring. It is filled with interactive exhibits that keep boredom at bay. Virtual games, access to social media and the chance to be a reporter on a video that you can take home later for $5 give visitors something to do when their eyes begin to tire from all the reading material inside the building.

Visit the Newseum if you get a chance. It’s meaningful, fun and inexpensive, with admission ranging from $11 to $25 per person.Walk up to the 74-foot-high marble wall on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the Newseum. On it are the words of the First Amendment:

“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.”

After that long drive to the nation’s capitol, you’ll be in the right place.

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