This autoethnographic essay explores experiences of two White female media-scholars at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on August 10, 2013. It considers the Newseum’s role in how we remember and why we forget certain aspects of U.S. American journalism and the relationship between this institutional site of memory and our individual and collective identities. The self-reflexive, autobiographical methodological form allows the historians of media and culture to consider the calls of Barbie Zelizer, Carolyn Kitch, Janice Hume, and Alexander Dhoest for more conceptual clarity in our understandings of public, social, cultural, and collective memory and for new understandings of the negotiation and reception of media memory-texts and sites of memory.
To evoke Louis Althusser, we were always already hailed by the Newseum.1 The Grand Cathedral of the First Amendment beckoned its visitors through the material and ideological ritual practice of sightseeing.2 A former journalist turned assistant professor of media history and an assistant professor consumed with the study of social memory and journalistic narrative, two White female professors dedicated to training future journalists in the practice of civic journalism, we made our way down the same converged path that directed us toward what Pierre Nora called the lieu de mémoire, or symbolic memory space that contributes to the “heritage of any community.”3 We had arrived in the city for the same collective purpose: to share our research on the role of media in U.S. American culture with fellow mass communication scholars and journalism practitioners at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. On that Saturday morning, journeying with old friends or trudging alone in gym clothes and tennis shoes, masking our identities as media historians, research scholars, and journalism educators, mingling with fellow tourists, we traveled down Ninth Street, past the National Mall, amongst the pilgrims worshipping in the mecca of American memory, to 555 Pennsylvania Avenue. Before entering, as voyeurs of journalism’s past, we moved past the public’s present, the display of front pages from newspapers across the United States, which on this day included a headline featuring then President Barack Obama’s vow to reform the National Security Agency’s surveillance program—and into les lieux de mémoire, sites of memory, as a form of academic escapism and to consider our collective past(s).4
Unable to leave our academic identities tucked safely inside our suitcases, we began to scour the Newseum as independent investigators, notebooks and cameras in hand, though we both struggled at the time to articulate exactly for what we were searching. We made our ways through the News Corporation News History Gallery; the Bloomberg Internet, TV, and Radio Gallery; the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery; and the semi-permanent exhibit Make Some Noise: Students and the Civil Rights Movement. One scholar first gathered images with reckless abandon in Creating Camelot, a temporary exhibit documenting the campaign photography of Jacques Lowe. The other scrambled to take notes until she arrived at the 9/11 Gallery, where the confrontation with the mangled steel of the World Trade Center’s Communication Tower forced her to put down her pen.
What makes these independent visits so important is that they signaled for each scholar the interaction of the personal and the collective in negotiating the memory of U.S. American journalism presented by the Newseum. Memories are not just personal but neither are they wholly universal; rather, as Eviatar Zerubavel described them, “they are almost exclusively confined to a particular thought community.”5 This outing became an initiation into a mnemonic community identified by its investment in U.S. American journalism’s storied past.
Unlike the individuals for whom the museum seemed to be designed to serve—casual tourists, educators, and journalists—we (the scholars on tour that day and the authors narrating this piece) comprise a unique category of visitors, members of an academic “thought community.” As college professors, we spend our time, as educators, training future journalists how to report on the world truthfully, ethically, and bravely and, as scholars, critiquing the ideological dimensions of U.S. American reporting that have shaped readers’ impressions of the world in the hopes that our interventions will result in future generations of journalists attuned to social difference, intersectionality, and the nuanced telling of complex stories from historically marginalized perspectives. As we concluded our journey through the Newseum, we were left with lingering and troubling questions about contradictions inherent in the version of U.S. American journalism history presented before us, and these years later, as the Newseum shuts its Pennsylvania Avenue doors for good, we cannot help but wonder if its ideological limitations forecasted its own demise, and for that matter, the current crisis in journalism generally, reverberating in our classrooms, among other places.
The following autoethnographic essay considers our experiences consuming, reflecting on, and critiquing the main permanent exhibit of the Newseum, the News Corporation News History Gallery, on August 10, 2013. The purpose of this essay is twofold: first, using a memory-studies framework, we critique the gallery’s role in how we remember and why we forget certain aspects of U.S. American journalism; and second, we use an autoethnographic approach to examine the relationship between this institutional site of memory and our individual and collective identities as journalism scholars and teachers anxious about the future of the Fourth Estate.6 Autoethnography, as a self-reflexive, autobiographical method, allows the historians of media and culture to consider the calls of Barbie Zelizer, Carolyn Kitch, Janice Hume, and Alexander Dhoest for more conceptual clarity in our understandings of public, social, cultural, and collective memory and for new understandings of the negotiation and reception of media memory-texts and sites of memory, respectively.7
In this essay, we reflect on our interactions with the Newseum in the context of a war against journalists, the First Amendment, and truth itself. The phrase “fake news” appeared to materialize from the ether in mid-October 2016 during the height of the U.S. presidential election as a descriptor of deliberate misinformation distributed by various entities for political gain and profit generation, ultimately prompting Oxford Dictionaries to pronounce “post-truth”—an adjective described as relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief—as the Word of the Year.8 Though the phenomenon of fake news is nothing new, the demise of the Newseum may seem to some onlookers as a metaphor for growing public mistrust of U.S. American journalism encouraged by the Trump administration.9 “Newseum loyalists—and they do exist,” quipped Politico’s Jack Shafer, “will lecture you on the symbolic value, especially in the era of Trump, of having a building facing the U.S. Capitol that has the words to the First Amendment carved into its face.”10 Written amidst that milieu, the Newseum found itself in dire financial straits, the Freedom Foundation’s endowment shrinking and attendance topping off at 800,000 visitors a year (despite projections for more than 1 million), prompting considerations of its function and utility in memorializing U.S. American journalism as a reflection of democratic values and a powerful social justice tool.
This critique is driven by an autoethnographic approach informed by our own identities as journalism educator-scholars.11 Autoethnography provided an effective lens to interrogate the operation of identity, the negotiation and reception of individual and shared understandings of memory-texts, and the intermingling of history and memory in the Newseum. Further, it also has afforded researchers with the opportunity to provide a critical intervention into the discipline, to suggest the possibilities of new theoretical and methodological approaches. As cultural historian Raymond Williams once wrote: “We ‘see’ in certain ways—that is, we interpret sensory information according to certain rules—these rules and interpretations—are, as a whole, neither fixed nor constant. We can learn new rules and new interpretations, as a result of which we shall literally see in new ways.”12 We hope that this article provides a new way of seeing how memory operates, the possibilities of alternative theoretical approaches and methodological forms, and a critical intervention into how we remember and historicize U.S. American journalism.
Theory and Method: Approaching the Newseum as Autoethnographic Social Memory Work
“I keep six honest serving men [sic]
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”
August 10, 2013, 2:37 p.m.
I snap the image of Rudyard Kipling’s words etched into the walls of the Newseum.
In the moment, I do not understand my act. Why? It’s one of the most nuanced journalistic queries. Is it a sense of pride over the journalistic ideal of objectivity? A sense of nostalgia over an imperfect past never lived? A deeper psychological need to document my ephemeral existence? Or perhaps it’s a more pragmatic urge?
“I wanted an image to convey the Six Ws (Who, What, Why, When, Where, and How) to my undergraduate journalism students,” I said, smiling at my pedagogical savvy. “It’ll help them to understand the forms of the lede and the inverted pyramid.”
Before I leave the site that champions the First Amendment, I collect one last image, an artistic display of newspaper type. My entry-level reporting students will chuckle at the antiquated type. Or, “will they even recognize this historical artifact?” I wonder aloud, lamenting the lack of historical understanding that many journalism students across the nation possess, the disappearance of a bygone era, and the uncertainty of the present moment in the industry.
I enter the Newseum store and purchase a magnet with the following quotation: “If a dog bites a man, that’s not news. If a man bites a dog, that is news.” I will show my students the magnet to emphasize the newsworthiness of the unusual. The purchase of the memory-commodity was ironic not only because it represented the celebration of a flawed set of news values, but also because it definitively attributed the quote to New York Sun publisher Charles A. Dana in 1882, when in fact the originator of the journalistic adage is debatable.13 The materiality of the journalism memory-object arose not from its “thingness,” but instead from an interaction with the evocative, texto-material object at a particular moment in time (Roessner remembers).14
The Newseum is a site of public memory, a les lieu de memoire, for the visitors who interact with it. Charles Morris has defined public memory as “a purposeful engagement of the past, forged symbolically, profoundly constitutive of identity, community, and moral vision, inherently consequential in its ideological implications, and very often the fodder of political conflagration.”15 Public commemoration is, according to Carole Blair and Neil Michel, a practice of “rhetorical invention” articulated through visual and textual discourses, tropes, narratives, and material conditions and contexts.16 Scholars dating to Maurice Halbwachs in the 1950s have posited a distinction between history and memory as “opposing ways of recalling the past.”17
This article examines the Newseum as a public commemoration of American journalism from the point of view of two critical media scholars who specialize in public memory and who are committed to allying themselves in the classroom and through their research with historically underrepresented groups. Those two commitments collided that afternoon at the Newseum. To that end, this article foregrounds the complex relationship between history and public memory—the actual past juxtaposed with its purposeful narration, controlled by hegemonic voices designed to sustain rather than disrupt the political and social status quo to the detriment of historically marginalized communities who have not the means to control or significantly contribute to the dominant narrative. The Newseum is one such site of public memory—an observation readily apparent to two women surrounded by images of men, and a critique worthy of further examination.
Inquiry into the relationship between sanctioned, institutional memory (“history”) and cultural memory often focuses on the commonalities, rather than the differences, between the two. History, like memory, wrote Charles Morris, is “tropologically, ontologically, and ideologically a rhetorical exercise.”18 Indeed, Zelizer has confirmed the fragmentary nature of memory, arguing that the past is most clearly understood as a comparison of various “official” and alternative images of it. Specifically, historical narrative (like journalistic narrative) suggests that an objective and accurate “truth” may be attained through systematic investigation of the past, while memory narrative (as an outgrowth of postmodern thinking) was necessarily diverse, fragmented, and mutable.19
For media critics, this distinction is integral to our multimodal study of the past. As Patrick Hutton has noted, “Historians in media culture…have become more readily disposed to analyze the images through which the past is remembered. They contend that history is no more than an official memory, one among many possible ways in which to imagine the past.”20 To that end, this article aims to complicate the authoritative nature of the retelling of American journalism’s past.
As Alexander Dhoest has argued, a study of audience reception, such as this, benefits greatly from an autoethnographic turn, which is “relatively uncluttered by preconceptions and frameworks, observation protocols and questionnaires.”21 Recognizing the methodological value for our theoretical understandings of memory and history, together, we approached our analysis of the Newseum as evidence of the “social trajectory” of public memory through an autoethnographic study of it. Zelizer has described the “social trajectory” of memory, whereby revisiting the past is used to “shape belonging, exclusivity, social order, and community.”22 As members of an academic community dedicated to the consideration of the cultural history of U.S. American journalism, our interactions with the Newseum are constitutive of our social identities. Therefore, with us we brought to the museum “memory held in common by…engagement in a shared project,” and in this way, our interactions with the Newseum constitute the negotiation of a set of social memories. We consider our project an articulation of social memory for “having been at a common place in which history was enacted and experienced.”23
Although the origin of the term “autoethnography” dates back to the work of anthropologists Karl Heider and David Hayano in the 1970s, the approach did not gain widespread acceptance until the 1990s. “Autoethnography is an autobiographical genre of writing and research,” wrote Carolyn Ellis and Arthur Bochner, “that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural.”24 It remains underutilized in mass communication research due to claims of objectivity that continue to permeate the scholarship of the field. However, researchers in this discipline are beginning to turn to the approach as they acknowledge that “the exclusion of the personal perpetuates myths of objectivity that continue to erase the impact of researchers on the knowledge that they produce, which obscures the way all knowledge is embedded in cultural and social value systems.”25 In recent years, autoethnographic studies have proven insightful in providing new understandings about identity and reception of texts across disciplines.26 With this literature in mind, this article embraces the possibilities of autoethnography for communication research.27
To construct this manuscript, we drew upon material traces of our visit comprised of electronic field notes, digital photographs, and material artifacts—in this case, souvenirs, and the tangible memories—to the Newseum on August 10, 2013. These texts provided us with the raw materials necessary to (re)construct our visit and to offer readers with—in Geertzian terms—a “thick description” of lived experiences translated in narrative form of how individual and collective identities were implicated in an institutional site of memory. Though we originally conceived of this project as a wholistic critique of the Newseum, our inductive methodological approach led us to focus the following analysis on the News Corporation News History Gallery, the largest permanent and most comprehensive exhibit in the building. We used temporary and online exhibits to frame our critique of it. Through phone conversations and emails, we compared field notes and impressions to formulate a joint analysis of our separate but contemporaneous visits to the Newseum. We drew in particular on our common identities as journalism instructors and critical media historians with research interests in civic journalism studying a climate so long dominated by heteronormative, White male voices.
Analysis: Critiquing the Newseum from inside the Grand Cathedral
In the following analysis, we combine anecdotes and reflections from our field notes with theoretical insights that shape our critique of the Newseum’s version of journalism history – a story in which we are deeply invested as research scholars, media historians, and journalism educators. In the following sections, we trace our struggle to interact with the Newseum as media scholars. First, we critique the conditions of the “musealization” of U.S. American journalism by tracing the origins of the Newseum. Then, we explore the hagiographic iconography of the physical site in Washington, DC, to uncover the ideological rendering of U.S. American journalism as the “Cathedral of the First Amendment.” We next consider the implications of the Newseum’s willful ignorance of the influence of alternative publications in promoting the brand of social justice that the museum instead erroneously ascribes to mainstream news institutions only. Through this analysis, we illuminate the corporatization of U.S. American journalism, which heralds the contributions of White men at the expense of women and journalists of color. Indeed, as media scholars of alternative media, including the feminist and Black presses, we seek with this analysis to make a simple point: that despite its stated intentions, the Newseum celebrates the capitalist, rather than civic, contributions of the journalism industry.
The “musealization” of U.S. American journalism
In the beginning, I found great pleasure in my journey alongside the memory-objects of U.S. American journalism. The earliest iteration of the Newseum, in Rosslyn, Virginia, was erected to restore the image of journalism in the U.S. American imagination. As such, its curators engaged in a celebration of the rhetoric of the First Amendment, the journalistic method of objectivity, and the heroic icons that fought to establish these foundational U.S. American values. I had succumbed to the celebratory narrative of progress, but as I proceeded through the museum, corporate interests became increasingly visible.
Gannett, News Corp, Bloomberg, Pulitzer—“How could I have missed the corporate hand?” the voice of the critical scholar echoed in my head. I am a staunch proponent of media literacy, always encouraging my students to interrogate cultural texts such as these, but I had slipped into a moment of reverie about the institution of journalism, nearly forgetting that it has been shaped by powerful corporate interests that often work against social change and rather preserve the status quo (Roessner remembers).
The mission of the Newseum, according to its website, is “to promote, explain, and defend free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment.” In blunter terms, the Newseum might be fashioned as what Shafer has called a “gilded monument to journalistic vanity.”28 The Newseum originally opened its doors in 1997 at a site in Rosslyn, Virginia, as the brainchild of the founder of USA Today, Al Neuharth, who upon his retirement from Gannett revisioned its charitable arm as the Freedom Forum and commenced work on the Newseum.29 In 2008, its owner, the Freedom Foundation, gave the museum a $450-million-dollar facelift, moving it from Rosslyn to its Washington DC site. This last physical vestige of the Newseum demonstrated its commitment to the First Amendment through seven levels of interactive exhibits, comprised of fifteen galleries and fifteen theaters, including the News Corporation News History Gallery. The exhibits and galleries were comprised of 60,000 artifacts that ranged from the remnants of the World Trade Center’s communication tower to the ephemera of Tim Russert’s office. The museum also fulfilled its mission through the Newseum Institute [renamed the Freedom Forum institute in 2018], including the First Amendment Center and the Religious Freedom Center, which still serves as a forum for study and debate on issues surrounding journalism and the First Amendment and its website, which still features NewseumED, a free digital platform that educates the public about First Amendment freedoms, civics, and media literacy, history, ethics, and law.
Despite these noble intentions, members of the popular press and scholars alike have critiqued the Newseum since its inception in April 1997. Previous academic analyses of the original museum site in Rosslyn underscore its problematic nature as a commercial, rather than public, enterprise.30 For instance, Rachel Gans emphasized the corporate roots of the Newseum, stressing the role of its founding body as the nonprofit arm of Gannett, the media conglomerate notorious for its “reputation as ruthless, profit driven, predatory, and exceptionally hostile to labor.”31 Thus, Gans contended that the Newseum was a Gannett project meant to convey to its visitors that freedom of the press—the hallmark of U.S. American journalism—can be achieved only through the current, highly concentrated, profit-motivated structure of U.S. American media.
Indeed, the names at the entrance of each exhibit said it all—News Corporation, Time Warner, Comcast, Cox Enterprises, Bloomberg, NBC, ABC, The New York Times-Ochs-Sulzberger Family, and others. The history offered in the Newseum reflected, in media theorist and historian James Carey’s words, what “wechoose (emphasis added) to remember about the past,” but the we here is not individual, nor is it collective; rather, it is corporate.32 As such, it revealed the corporate hand that created it, one that insisted upon reaping huge returns on investment for years, refusing to properly reinvest in technologies and other resources (read: employees) and ignored the festering troubles that resulted in the near-collapse of the Fourth Estate.33
Like the earliest journalism history textbooks, which Carey warned against in 1974, the Newseum offered visitors with a promotional, Whiggish interpretation of journalism history, a narrative of mostly great men (mythic journalists, in the vein of Kipling’s honest serving men, such as Charles Dana, Edward R. Murrow, and Walter L. Cronkite)—with stories of women and minorities sprinkled in for good measure (afterthoughts, such as “Whose News Is It? ‘Too Long Have Others Spoken For Us,’” a poorly integrated, latter-day addition display panel focused on alternative publications aimed at women and minorities, symbolic of the marginalization and ghettoization of women and minorities in the industry)—and news organizations that marched steadily with some pauses (see yellow journalism) toward the expansion of freedom and information.34 Ted Friedman acknowledged as much in his critique of the Newseum’s Rosslyn site, which was the first academic treatment of the text.35 He argued that the Newseum in its original form was a desperate bid at “edutainment” designed to “spruce up the image of journalism” against the backdrop of industry-wide crisis.
The origins of the Newseum can be traced to the erosion of the institution of journalism, the near collapse of the professional news industry, and the displacement of newsworkers from their longstanding workplaces. Shortly before the Newseum opened at its present site in 2008, newspaper companies across the United States began declaring bankruptcy at unprecedented rates, many shed their print editions, and some fettered their doors. Newsworkers in major U.S. cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Miami, San Jose, and Seattle, to name but a few, vacated the grand edifices that had been erected in the twentieth century as cathedrals to the freedom of the press signifying corporate journalism’s Golden Age. The atrophied halls of journalism subsequently were demolished or repurposed for other uses. Material traces only survive in select sites.36 In many cases, the real environments of memory have disappeared across the national landscape, and we are left only with an artificial site of memory, or what Nora calls “a slippage of the present into a historical past that is gone for good.”37
Hagiographic iconography of the Newseum: The mythologizing of journalism history’s “great men”
We come together to compare the notes we have assiduously documented in preparation for our initial research meeting. Photographs of words and images document our visits. Images of (White) men: Edward R. Murrow, Walter L. Cronkite, John F. Kennedy. Images of the words of (White) men: Charles Dana and Phillip Graham. Images taken by (White) men: Jacques Lowe and Eddie Allen. More than fifty years ago, historian Jack Hexter wrote that our narratives of the past had been “mostly stag affairs.” Since then, answering the calls of Marion Marzolf and Catherine Covert, among others, media scholars have begun to retrieve women from the footnotes of history; however, as historian Elaine Tyler May wrote, “adding women and stirring provided a hint of spice, but the flavor of history remained pretty much the same.” The Newseum mirrors the flaws of our field and our history; like a funhouse mirror, it also distorts, magnifying the contributions of the Great Men and offering only a trace of little women and minorities. As women, we must offer an intervention into the masculinized narrative of the Newseum (Roessner and Teresa reflect).38
Throughout much of history, journalism has been a male-dominated profession, and the newsroom, a masculine domain. The Newseum [and its still operational traveling exhibits] operates in the same celebratory mode as many other sites of memory serving to commemorate the acts of its great men, offering visitors with additive interventions of Little Women and Minorities, as evidenced in the addition of “Whose News Is It? ‘Too Long Have Others Spoken For Us.’”39 Within the multiple-panel display, curators acknowledge that most early U.S. American newspapers and magazines focused on their primary target audience: English-speaking White males, “but in time, alternative publications began to appear, aimed at women and minorities—those who had not been adequately represented in the news columns.” However, this functionalist account glossed over important historical actors from the museum’s narrative, namely women such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, and Daisy Bates, who contributed to a vibrant, alternative press designed to advocate for social justice.40
Instead, the great men’s history is offered in mythic terms of heroes and villains. Considering the subject matter (journalism), this might not shock readers either. Those familiar with the work of Jack Lule would immediately recognize the mythic character of the news and not consider it a far stretch that the great men of journalism history would be framed in mythic terms.41 That is also not to say that these tales are somehow false—although in some instances, they are, as in the case of the media solipsism surrounding the visual representation of the 1960 presidential race, the Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam depicted in the Newseum. It is, however, to caution readers of the totalizing narratives that it supports, in particular the Whiggish story of progress in U.S. American journalism, and the stories that it neglects.
Public memory sites often use individuals as “exemplary models” to represent the shared cultural ideals and values reflected in narratives of past events. The evocation of “exemplary models” through public commemoration, according to Lule, “can signal to a society what is important and what is not, how to act and how not, who is worthy and who is not.”42 Through public discourse, individuals become imbued with lasting symbolic significance. They are no longer men or women, fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, but rather symbols designed to signify the characteristics of the past most “worth” remembering.
More often than not in the Newseum, White manly heroes of the newsroom, individuals such as Joseph Pulitzer, Murrow, Cronkite, and Lowe are celebrated at center stage, and their mistakes, such as sensationalism, editorialization, and the manufacture of pseudo-events through imagecraft, cardinal sins in the world of objective journalism, are dismissed as anomalies in otherwise glorious, exemplary careers. For instance, in Creating Camelot—a traveling exhibition featuring more than four hundred linear feet of exhibit content, including fourteen oversized image panels, sixty-nine framed color and black-and-white photographs with labels and supporting story panels, and a self-contained video monitor with an original Newseum-produced feature, on central display at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue during our visit in August 2013—Newseum curators extol the work of John F. Kennedy, one of the early practitioners of showbiz politics partly responsible for glamorizing presidential campaigns and mythologizing a deeply flawed man, who engaged in sexual violence toward women and lied to the American public about his private life and his personal decisions as president.
Moreover, in the News Corporation News History gallery, which was the largest exhibit hall in the Newseum, visitors were invited to search through four hundred historic newspaper front pages, newsbooks, and magazines. The gallery also included five movie theaters, ten interactive mini-exhibits, and eight breakout cases dedicated to specific issues that U.S. American journalists have faced over time. This gallery is significant because it was not only the biggest, but also the most comprehensive, exhibit in the Newseum. Instead of focusing on just one facet, it attempted to construct a coherent narrative of five hundred years’ worth of journalism history. The News Corp’s News History Gallery used various primary sources to demarcate points along a linear historical narrative. Visitors were invited to sift through large drawers that contained various local, regional, and national publications. They could follow the linear timeline, or pinpoint specific dates or time periods of interest to them. The gallery was designed so that visitors could “get a good idea of how life was like at any particular moment in time.” News, as we know, is a reflection of culture, and so the newspapers of the gallery were presented as the raw materials used in what Carey affectionately called the “first draft of history.”43
In “The Newseum’s Historic Front Pages,” an explanatory video about the forty thousand newspapers on display in the gallery, historian Stephen Goldman offered insight into the Newseum curation display strategy that privileged “news that shouts, news that whispers, and the first reports of a particular event.”44 In theory, these types of timelines potentially can incorporate multiple perspectives into historical narrative, though they rarely function in that way. Rather, timeline accounts tend to reinforce standard historical narratives that utilize the same public figures and anecdotal stories over again, which “perpetuate a dominant hegemonic historical discourse that privileges the great men (and few women) of power,” wrote Bettina Fabos.45 Consequently, Woman’s Weekly, a suffragist newspaper and the official publication of the Nebraska woman’s club, exists in a world overshadowed by sensational news, such as Boston Newsletter’s coverage of the beheading of Edward Teach, better known to most as Blackbeard the pirate, in 1718. Accordingly, if one were to substitute the idea of “great men” with “great news institutions,” they would have a good sense of how the Newseum’s marquis gallery worked. Though the curators who put together the exhibit sought to include “news that shouts, news that whispers, and first reports,” it was clear that the news that shouted most loudly to them only included voices that reflected dominant, hegemonic perspectives (i.e., the Pulitzers, Murrows, and Cronkites of the news world), all but silencing the historically marginalized but powerful resistant forces, such as the Black Press, that helped to shape modern U.S. American journalism.
Historicizing journalism’s role in social change: The case of Ida B. Wells and the Black press
“A One Woman Crusade. After three friends were lynched in Memphis in 1892,…” the museum placard began. I stalked through the News Gallery, furiously tugging open the drawers containing newspapers from each decade, looking for titles that had so influenced my formation as a critical media scholar and ally when I was in graduate school: Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Baltimore Afro-American. But they were not there. Only Ida, alone on a placard, bore any trace of the influence that the Black press had on American journalism (Teresa remembered).
The story of Ida B. Wells is a familiar one to most U.S. American journalism historians and historians of race and gender. It is fitting that the Newseum included the story of the anti-lynching crusader in its News Corporation News History Gallery, but the curators fell into the trap that many historians encountered when adding narratives of women and peoples of color to the narrative. They added the narratives and stirred, but failed to shake them, and as a result, “the flavor of history remained pretty much the same.”46
Though Wells is perhaps the best-known African American journalist to emerge from a rich tradition that began with Samuel Cornish and John B. Russworm’s Freedom’s Journal (1827–1829) and Frederick Douglass’s North Star (1847–1851), newspapers that carried information about the achievements of freemen in the North, published editorials promoting the abolishment of slavery, and offered to Black communities both in bondage and free a public voice to “plead their own cause,” Newseum curators largely neglected to offer the nuanced narrative of the vibrant Black Press that emerged in the post-Antebellum United States.47 After the Civil War ended, a new crop of newspapers were established to report on civic life, including education, politics, and media and the arts as newly freed Blacks began to settle in communities in the North, South, and Midwest. The Baltimore Afro-American, Cleveland Gazette, Philadelphia Tribune, New York Age, and Savannah Tribune emerged in the late 1800s and, despite early financial instability, survived due to the large numbers of newly freed Black citizens migrating to the cities in which they published. By 1910, the influential New York Amsterdam News, Chicago Defender, and Pittsburgh Courier also commenced publication. These newspapers were integral to the freedom struggle. They promoted collective action, built a sense of community and culture, and battled the misrepresentation of African Americans in mainstream newspapers that served as their contemporaries while at the same time innovated newsgathering practices (The Chicago Defender) and were among the first newspapers to utilize citizen journalists (the Associated Negro Press syndicate).48
Moreover, curators also failed to offer visitors to the Newseum Wells’s full history—they did not document her tireless efforts to serve as an advocate for the rights of women, minorities, and members of the working class through her investigative journalism, her public relations campaigns, and her political activism.49 We must read the bias of institutional memory as a bias of history and communication.50 For the sake of parsimony, these curators—like historians before them—disregarded nuanced details that might complicate their grand narrative. The result has been memory distortions and cultural amnesias that reveal much about our continuing cultural anxieties surrounding race in U.S. America. Though Ida B. Wells graces its halls, there is very little substantive information that foregrounds the importance of African Americans themselves in their freedom struggle. The Whiggish narrative of journalism history prevents the (often messy) inclusion of the important role of alternative publications, such as the Black press. To include these voices in the Whiggish narrative of U.S. American journalism would be to undermine it. In the case of race, Black press publications—not the “heroic” mainstream press—were the only forms of journalism sympathetic to Black Americans and were the driving force of the struggle for freedom.51 For instance, after the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, crusading journalists, such as L.C. and Daisy Bates, owners of the Arkansas State Press, placed their lives in jeopardy to advocate for the integration of Central High School and to serve as the champions of the Little Rock Nine, but instead of commemorating their valiant acts of advocacy journalism, the Newseum, in the vein of many media history books, mythologizes the courageous acts of mainstream media outlets, such as Time-Life and CBS.52
In the final analysis, curators of the News Corp gallery rarely included artifacts signifying the participation of African Americans in news institutions—which is substantively different from their role as news subjects. As Teresa sifted through the tens of drawers of summer 1910, she found but one nod to the Black press—a Chicago Defender front page dedicated to the victory of prizefighter Jack Johnson over Jim Jeffries in the iconic Fight of the Century. Likewise, the semi-permanent exhibit “Make Some Noise: Students and the Civil Rights Movement” made use of archival photographs, footage, and quotes from civil rights leaders to show how the five protections enumerated in the First Amendment made it possible for both Black and White students united in the cause for civil rights to have their voices heard in national discourse. The implication is, of course, that the struggle for freedom represents the pinnacle of free press at its best: newspapers had the autonomy to promote the Civil Rights Movement through coverage of it, leading to the expansion of rights for African Americans. Though mainstream news—notably early broadcast television and Life magazine’s publication of photographs taken by Charles Moore—certainly contributed to the ultimate success of the civil rights agenda, it was hardly the driving force behind it. Rather, Black press newspapers and magazines set the stage by continually discussing and debating key issues that affected the Black community first as an enslaved population, as early as the 1820s with the publication of Freedom’s Journal, and later under Jim Crow–era segregation and oppression. Public relations efforts by organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee also attributed to the movement’s success.53
The Newseum’s engagement with Black cultural histories fails to properly acknowledge the complicity of the mainstream press in marginalizing, condemning, and silencing Black voices in the lead-up to the civil rights struggle. Tomes of journalism research have reinforced the claim that U.S. American journalism participated in the perpetuation of racist stereotypes. Mainstream newspapers consistently framed Black news subjects as—if not outright villainous—then at least one-dimensional, ineffective, and complicit in their own oppression.54 These newspapers willfully ignored institutional failures to recognize the pernicious forms of physical, structural, and cultural violence perpetuated against Blacks. When public memory scholars refer to the “amnesia” inherent in the public commemoration of past events, they need look no further than the Newseum’s treatment of the Black press.
Discussion: Memory and Identity at the Newseum
We were forced to exit the museum at close. Our visits, however, were always already incomplete (Roessner and Teresa bemoaned).
Through the use of autoethnography, this study foregrounds in its analysis the experiences of two media scholars as they reflect on their separate but simultaneous interactions with Washington, DC’s Newseum in their roles as women, media historians, research scholars, and journalism educators. This approach, which traces our induction into a mnemonic community of media scholars particularly invested in the research, teaching, and promotion of U.S. American journalism as a tool for social change, allowed us to consider our visits to the Newseum as a case study through which we could begin to unpack the struggle inherent in “objectively” approaching les lieux de mémoire that is so intimately tied to our professional identities. Through analyzing our respective experiences with the Newseum, we traced the conceptual nuances of public memory, and we reflected on the myriad ways in which the reception of public memory takes place. We argue in this section that reflecting on our dual identities as tourists and scholars, simultaneously celebrating and critiquing the Newseum, yields important implications for the study of social memory by scholars of journalism, media, and communication.
As Dhoest has argued, minority positionality can play a potentially large role in media consumption and reception, so it is no surprise that our identities as women came to the fore in our analysis in ways we had not anticipated both at the museum and in the writing of this article. As we witnessed here, even members of an academic “thought community” that specialize in the study of media history—in particular, the alternative press—can, in a moment of reverie, succumb to the celebratory narrative of great newsmen and news institutions; how might individuals who lack media literacy in the subject of journalism history negotiate the Newseum?
Ultimately, we chose to follow our autoethnographic instinct to focus on the corporate, institutional history offered in the Newseum, the nation’s preeminent site of journalistic memory. The Newseum uses the “great men’s bias” to weave the promotional, Whiggish history of journalism that James Carey critiqued in the earliest journalism history textbooks, only inserting the voices of women and peoples of color to explain the “messier” moments of journalism history, such as the struggle over civil rights, and even then only tangentially. In doing so, the News Corporation News History Gallery replicates many of the same tropes as other museums do by “symbolically transform[ing] subjects into objects, reduc[ing] lives to artifacts, and fold[ing] complexity and difference into homogeneous narratives,” according to Joan Faber McAlister, ultimately privileging a corporate, masculine perspective designed ideally for male consumption.55 In turn, the nation’s prominent les lieux de mémoire, or sites of memory, serves as one of the primary symbolic lieu de mémoire, or memory spaces, for the nation’s standard-bearer of the First Amendment, a dangerous prospect considering that the material site of the museum privileged a dominant, hegemonic perspective, which all but silenced marginalized voices that helped to shape modern U.S. American journalism and functioned to contribute to the collective amnesia surrounding women, peoples of color, and the alternative press. We both have published extensively in particular on the Black press, and though we understand that we are not the standard-bearers of what the quality of such inclusions might stand to look like at the Newseum, we know it is doing a great disservice to its audience by relegating those institutional stories and exemplary figures to beyond the walls of its edifice.
In this article, we identified the analytical possibilities inherent in reflecting on our personal motivations, experiences, and interactions with the Newseum as a way to direct our critique of it. The context of our visits, the manner in which we chronicled our visits in notes, images, and souvenir purchases, and our casual conversations that sparked this project illuminated the (sometimes antithetical) ways in which we approached the Newseum as a site of memory. As tourist-spectators in our sneakers and t-shirts, escaping the monotony of conferencing, we were attracted to the spectacle of U.S. American journalism at its presumed greatest; we roamed the halls, snapped photos, and visited the gift shop, ostensibly pleased by the idea that the subject for which we had based our professional identities was of such popular, public interest. It implied that our work, too, could leave academic halls to spark accessible, meaningful public debate about the important role that journalism plays in shaping the lives of everyday U.S. Americans.
Interaction with les lieux de mémoire is an inherently social exercise that binds members of a specific community together via a shared interest in the past. In undertaking this project, we reflected on our separate visits to the Newseum as media scholars, which is a substantively different interaction than everyday tourists (though we were those, too) may have with the museum. Reflection of our dual roles highlights the importance of foregrounding perspective, identity, and belonging in the consideration of public memory texts by media scholars. To what degree does professional interest in les lieux de mémoire influence a researcher’s allegedly objective interaction with it? Based on the research in this study, we follow Dhoest’s call to mass communication scholars to embrace the creative freedoms and reflexive possibilities of the autoethnographic approach, we urge memory scholars to provide critical interventions to sites of memory, and we recommend that practitioners and curators offer nuanced accounts of alternative past(s) in physical spaces, such as the Newseum, for the negotiation of social memory.
We introduce with this essay implications for future critical research and teaching of journalism’s past through critical and personal reflection on the Newseum’s hagiographic treatment of it. As we collected paraphernalia to show to our students, we also reflected on the limitations of the Newseum as a complete or accurate “draft” of journalism history and our obligation as instructors training future generations of professional journalists. Our critique of the Whiggish historical narrative presented by the Newseum echoes similar critiques made by Friedman and Gans, who both have argued that the Newseum’s “claims of authority to speak for and to [U.S.] Americans and journalists are suspect.”56 These critiques are particularly resonant to researchers and scholars of alternative media—such as the Black press—who hope that their work in some way, shape, or form contributes to a more diverse, inclusive, and nuanced public understanding and appreciation of U.S. American journalism as a tool for social justice.
The crumbling edifice of the Newseum has signaled to some cultural commentators the effects of Trumpism, in particular his all-out assault against the “fake news” media, alongside simultaneous acts that threaten journalism’s foundational governing principles, undermine its hallmark values, and minimize its history, including its central role in a functioning democracy, but as this and previous studies of the Newseum indicate, the whitewashing of history existed not with the destruction of the Cathedral of the First Amendment but with its construction in the first place.57Politico’s Jack Shafer concluded his article “The Newseum deserved to die” by suggesting the Freedom Forum’s endowment might have been better spent supporting the work of actual journalists, and in light of the privileging of tributes to journalism’s corporate heroes over its civic heroes, we tend to agree that it would have been better spent on an infusion of funding for advocacy journalism. Perhaps, then, we would not find ourselves so deeply entrenched in our current state, struggling to find and share objective truths in a “post-fact” world.
Progressive historian Carl Becker reminds us that history is “the memory of things said and done.”58The cultural historian had relished les lieux de mémoire, sites of memory, “where memory crystallizes and secretes itself.” Upon further reflection, however, I recalled the next line of Nora’s germinal essay. Sites of memory exist, he wrote, because “there are no longer milieu de memoire, real environments of memory” (Roessner lamented).
In this essay, we critiqued the corporate version of great men’s history offered by the Newseum, which has served to silence many marginalized voices of journalism history by relegating them beyond the walls of the Newseum, but despite its flaws, we do not contend, as Schafer recently did, that “the Newseum deserves to die.” The Newseum has served as an important advocate of First Amendment rights, liberties that have come under sharp attack in recent years, and if re-envisioned, the Newseum could play an important role in speaking truth to power. That cultural role, however, is in jeopardy. Recent headlines of economic turmoil revealed that the future of the Newseum, like the future of journalism itself, is murky at best in this current sociopolitical landscape. “It doesn’t require a Ph.D. in comparative literature to see the Newseum’s troubles as a metaphor for the besieged state of the [U.S.] American press,” wrote critic Margaret Sullivan. “The First Amendment—whose words are etched impressively on the building’s exterior—is threatened by a media-hating president [Donald Trump]. The news industry’s financial turmoil continues. And many [U.S.] Americans mistrust news media, even as many others cherish and support journalists’ watchdog role.”59 In times such as these we are tempted to moan that the sky is falling, but it might be worth remembering that journalism has always already been in crisis and yet has managed to remain a vibrant force in public life for more than four hundred years. This grand cathedral to journalism might encounter a similar journey, or perhaps, it will suffer the same fate as the corporate hands that build it.
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