What the Newseum Meant to Me
Author: Karuna Savoie
I made my first trip to the Newseum as a college student at American University in Washington, D.C, but I almost didn’t go.
That initial visit was part of a series of freshman bonding activities. I assumed that the “News” in “Newseum” probably had something to do with my interests. I was scared of going alone, but desperate to make friends, so when I ran into a boy on his way to join the trip, I decided to tag along.
A shuttle bus ride and a few metro stops later, we arrived downtown and walked to Pennsylvania Avenue. We approached the Newseum, its tall gray facade bearing the text of the First Amendment.
I had managed to make a couple other acquaintances during the commute, so we stuck together as groups split off to view exhibits. Our first stop was the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery, where we made slow rounds past the collage of photographs in the exhibit entrance. Captioned “Assault with a Flag,” the image “The Soiling of Old Glory” was taken by Stanley Forman in 1976 and depicts a white teenager swinging the American flag at a black man during an anti-busing demonstration.
Some of the other photos told heart-warming stories—“Faith and Confidence,” taken by William C. Beall in 1957, shows a policeman explaining to a 2-year-old boy not to cross the street during a parade.
Examining each photo, I felt as if history was flooding through me, exposing me to everything that has led to the world as it is today. Many pictures were not easy to look at, not just because they were tragic. They were artistic, not just beautiful. These pictures differ from the ones we see everyday—they evoke emotion without dripping eye candy.
Just walking along the wall was like following a timeline, making the past feel like the
The wall served as an entrance into the rest of the exhibit, where each individual photograph was on display, accompanied by a description. One photo in particular stood out to me—a starving young girl, naked, curled over the ground, a vulture stalking her from behind. Kevin Carter snapped the photo in 1993 as he was covering famine in Sudan. It ended up in the New York Times.
This photo is more than a call to action against human injustice, it is about an ethical dilemma. The description explained how the young girl was struggling to crawl to a U.N. feeding center. Carter, instead of picking up the girl or helping her in some way, waited for 20 minutes, then chased the vulture away and let her continue struggling. He faced public criticism for the decision. Looking at the image, I want to believe I would have helped the child if I had been in that situation—but that is easy to say in hindsight.
I visited the Newseum a second time as part of an educational out-of-class experience a few weeks later. The professor’s assignment led me to some exhibits I hadn’t covered in my first visit. “Inside Today’s FBI” explored the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers, the Boston Marathon bombing and criminals such as Ted Kaczynski, who sent packaged bombs that killed three people.
Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, demanded The New York Times and the Washington Post publish his 35,000-word anti-technology manifesto. This resulted in an ethical quandary: print the manifesto and spread Kaczynski’s dangerous ideas, or refuse, and risk further violence. The newspapers ultimately decided to run it, at the request of the FBI.
I thought about what it would have been like for the papers’ staffs to receive the request—I hoped that by putting myself in the shoes of those journalists, I could learn from the choices they made.
The majority of this exhibit shined a spotlight on the law enforcement that caught these criminals. While it did also show the journalists that covered these events, it felt like part of another museum entirely. It is still my favorite part of the Newseum because it of how much it shocked me.
I grew up learning about 9/11, about Osama bin Laden and about terror. I never learned about ABC’s John Miller, who interviewed bin Laden three years before 9/11. I wondered what it was like to sit down with the terrorist that would soon become the face of evil in the U.S.
The Newseum’s closing was a cliché conversation-starter on campus by November. I visited for the third time on my own, taking all the time I needed to go through every exhibit, starting with “Today’s Front Pages,” a display of newspapers from around the U.S. and the world in front of the building..
A group of adults walked in to join a line for security checks before the ticket counter. They balked at the ticket price, and left without seeing the museum.
All of the numerous Smithsonian museums in D.C. have free admission. Privately owned museums compete with them for attendees. Adult tickets for the Newseum were nearly $25.
On my final visit, the Newseum’s Dec. 31 closure date was nearing, so a good number of visitors were there. I doubt if it would have been the same otherwise.
I headed to the bottom floor to see the Berlin Wall exhibit. An East Berlin watchtower rose over before a section of the original wall covered in graffiti. The surrounding description explained the integral role of radio in getting factual information to East Germans when the Wall prevented physical access.
I also went into the Ethics Center on the second floor for the first time. At an interactive kiosk, I was given a set of situations in which a reporter had to make a tough call, and compare my decision to the that of the public, and of other journalists. One scenario was about Kevin Carter, whose photograph I had viewed during my first visit.
There were two options: Help the child, or take a picture of the child without helping her. I chose the former.
I have forgotten what the kiosk said about journalists’ opinions on the issue, but I am almost glad that I did. I do remember that journalists had been advised to avoid infection, which could have happened had Carter made contact with her.
I also remember that a year after the photo, Carter committed suicide, having been haunted by the horrors he had witnessed. I felt that this question was really asking if I would endanger myself to trying to save the life of another.
I said I would.
Journalism can be lethal. That is one thing I learned, having walked away from the Newseum for the last time. Reporting is more than glossy talk show desks and microphones. It can be as simple as asking questions, being invested in a single person or problem, and it has real consequences. I knew this going in to the Newseum, but not with the real-life examples I know now.
I want to be an investigative reporter. I tell myself I want to report on “big” problems, matters of importance to the world. I also know that this could mean covering protests and riots, like in Hong Kong, where one journalist was permanently blinded in one eye after being hit with a rubber bullet, or civil wars, like in Syria, where ISIS executed journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley. I want to chase meaningful stories, but I cannot dismiss the danger that might come with them.
Journalists defend the First Amendment. The Newseum demonstrates that defending something could also mean suffering for it. I do not know where journalism will take me in the future, but I am forever grateful for those who do chase stories through showers of bullets, the shadows of massive tech conglomerates or even public ridicule.
The Newseum was more than just a museum, it was a glass-and-concrete letter of gratitude to communication. Each visit only made me more proud of my field of interest and the people who make it work.