2010-07-01 / This Week's Attitude

Newseum Showcases Essence Of American Democracy

This Week’’s Atti tude
By Neil S. Friedman

During a tour of the Newseum in Washington, DC, when visitors come to the section devoted to the First Amendment, a strange, distressing — but not so surprising — fact is revealed.


When polled, an overwhelming majority of Americans easily named the five family members of “The Simpsons” television family, but when asked to name the five freedoms in the First Amendment of the Constitution, fewer than one in five got all of them.

That disappointing result only goes to prove that too many Americans know more trivia about celebrities and cultural icons than the elemental facts about our nation.

(By the way, if you want to know the five freedoms, read on.)

Nonetheless, if you asked those same people what they value more, there’s no question most would say the freedom and independence that is unique to this country, evident by the enduring immigration over the last 150 years.

In the nation’s 234-year history, which we mark this Sunday, the five freedoms and other elements of the Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the Constitution that were crafted after the basic framework for a democratic government was established — have lent themselves to an assortment of interpretations by scholars, educators, historians and the courts, but, in the end, they continue to serve as mechanisms that reinforce our independence and freedom.

Like its counterparts in other fields, such as natural history and various cultural genres, the Newseum strives to educate and enlighten the public about how our country’s free press impacted our nation’s history in informative and entertaining fashions, as blends five centuries of news history, state-of-the-art technology and interactive exhibits for a matchless museum experience.

Consistent with free press autonomy, the Newseum does not receive government subsidies like most museums. Chief funding for day-to-day operations comes from The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan institution that champions the First Amendment.

Eight news media companies, including The New York Times, News Corporation, owner of the Fox News channel and several newspapers, ABC News, NBC News, and private supporters, bestowed over $50 million to launch the Newseum, but it is independent of any media companies and receives additional support from individuals, corporations and foundations.

As a veteran journalist, I’ve wanted to visit the Newseum since it opened over two years ago. However, you don’t have to be a reporter, editor or news junkie to enjoy the Newseum. A love of news makes a visit more enjoyable as you take in the history of the journalism displayed with multitude documents and objects, as our nation’s history is celebrated and vividly chronicled in print and in still or video images. Whether news comes from a daily or weekly newspaper, in tabloid (book form like the Courier) or a broadsheet form, like The New York Times, broadcast or 24-hour cable television news, it’s represented within the seven-floor building.

Journalism is, at its core, as Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post said in a speech several months before his death in 1963, “a first rough draft of history.”

Due to time constraints — the museum closes at 5 p.m. — I didn’t have sufficient time to see every exhibit, but I expect to return and do it all over again. Nonetheless, I was overwhelmed by the 9/11 Gallery, devoted to the demanding responsibilities reporters and news organizations faced in the aftermath of the tragedy of the attack on the U.S. It includes a 25-foot wall covered with more than 120 front pages from September 12, 2001 newspapers around the nation, and the mangled broadcast antenna recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center.

I also enjoyed a replica of the NBC News office of longtime “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert, who died two years ago, as well as the Journalists Memorial, devoted to reporters who died covering the news and an exhibit of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs.

As you approach the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, several blocks east of the Capitol building, you can’t help but notice an imposing 50-ton, 74- foot high marble tablet etched with the 45 treasured words that make up the First Amendment. As a journalist I appreciate the value of the phrase about Freedom of the Press, but as an American I revere the foresight of this nation’s founders to produce the First Amendment, which is the heart of our democracy.

For readers who’ve made it this far, I don’t know the five Simpsons, because I’ve only watched the animated program a few times, but the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment are: freedom of religion, the press and speech, plus the rights to assemble and petition the government.

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