Newseum Spotlights Centuries of News History, Major Events

Posted By Mike Padgett

April 17, 2011

WASHINGTON – The rain streamed sideways on our plane’s windows as we landed at Reagan National Airport. No sunbeams on this day. April’s dense clouds were almost as low as treetops.

The rain drenching Washington forced us to switch to Plan B on our newest visit. We had set aside two days for ourselves on this trip. But instead of attending the Cherry Blossom Festival, we headed for the museums to avoid the cold and damp weather.

The highlight this trip was spending a day in the Newseum. Its 250,000 square feet of displays of media pioneers, technology and historical events unleashed an adrenaline rush I hadn’t felt since my work on news teams during several Arizona elections.

The next time you’re in Washington, reward yourself with a visit to the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. If you appreciate the role a free press plays in a strong democracy, you won’t be disappointed. Copyright photo by Mike Padgett

The visit should remind you to look beyond public officials’ sound bites and posturing, and to always challenge their statements and motivations.

My Best Friend and I saw sections of the Berlin Wall and an East German guard tower. We studied the biographies of media pioneers.

A popular display in the Newseum has eight sections of the Berlin Wall and a three-story concrete guard tower. The display is a stark reminder of a once-divided Germany. The west side of the wall is covered with colorful grafitti. The east side is blank. Copyright photo by Mike Padgett

We studied analyses of the news media’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We stood before the display of Tim Russert’s office. On his desk is a wooden plaque, “Thou Shalt Not Whine.” Russert, respected by his colleagues and politicians for his fairness, died of a heart attack in June 2008 at NBC News’ Washington bureau. He was 58. Earlier that year, Russert was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

In the memorial room honoring reporters who died on the job since 1837, I sat and watched other visitors study the reporters’ names and mug shots. At a special ceremony May 16, the Newseum will rededicate the Journalists Memorial. The names of 77 journalists will be added, bringing the total to 2,084, according to news reports.

9/11 display

When I entered the room with the 9/11 display, my throat tightened. I returned to this room two more times before we left the museum near closing.

I stood before the bent and twisted broadcast tower from the World Trade Center in New York City. This metal tower had been the top of one of the tallest buildings in the world.

America’s collective memory includes the iconic video showing the WTC’s collapse. The broadcast tower sinks into a cloud of dust as the building falls in on itself.

Visitors to the 9/11 Gallery walk slowly around the broadcast tower that once was the top of the World Trade Center. They read the chronology of the attacks that day 10 years ago next September. Copyright photo by Mike Padgett

On the high wall next to the broadcast tower are 127 front pages from newspapers around the world. Each front page has photographs showing the WTC’s two skyscrapers burning or collapsing.

On another wall is the U.S. flag. And on a third wall is a slideshow. It shows people running for their lives while firefighters are racing to the burning towers

In the seconds it took for the buildings to collapse, thousands of lives – with dreams and smiles and freckles – were erased.

This display is powerful. It grabs the attention of those who remember the attack as well as students who weren’t born when this terror spawned a new world.

Visitors enter the room and stop and stare. I saw a couple, as they began reading the 9/11 chronology, inch closer together. They reached for each other’s hands. Reading about thousands of lives vanishing in a few grisly minutes is almost incomprehensible.

Attack 10 years ago changed the world

I studied the wall of newspapers with giant headlines blaring that day’s terror. Some visitors walked slowly around the broadcast tower, reading about the terrorist attack that, 10 years ago next September, changed the world.

I remember reading, in the days and weeks after the 2001 attack, about firefighters and police officers cringing on the sidewalks. Those first responders, already hardened to suffering and death, dodged office workers who chose to jump from the burning skyscrapers, rather than die in the flames.

Witnesses looking up saw office workers, dozens of stories above the streets, step to the windows and lean into space.

Newseum visitors who are old enough likely remember reading about the makeshift bulletin boards on the streets around Ground Zero. Relatives and friends posted notes about their missing loved ones. Single mom of two. Dark hair. Brown eyes. Loving father or brother or son. Worked at such-and-such company. Loved baseball and football. We miss you. We love you. Phone number. Please call.

The display reminded me of my feelings on the day of the attack. I was eating breakfast at home in Arizona. I was watching the morning news when I saw the first airliner fly into the World Trade Center. My brain said my eyes were wrong when they saw an airliner vanish into a skyscraper.

That’s when I realized our world has changed. We can never go back.

I continued listening to the news on my way to work that morning. When I heard the report about another airliner hitting the other WTC tower, I pulled over and stopped. I could only imagine the horror in the minds of office workers and rescuers facing death.

The news that morning included accounts of two other hijacked airliners. One was flown into the Pentagon. The other, on which passengers tried to retake control from hijackers, nosedived into a field in Pennsylvania.

More than 3,000 people died in the attacks in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania. I remember thinking this new world will be painful.

Many displays

The Newseum’s many other displays feature the First Amendment, ethics, the Internet, early news, Pulitzer Prize winners, and political cartoonists.

Historic quotes are on the walls throughout the Newseum. This one is by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Copyright photo by Mike Padgett

The names and places on the collection of front pages reach deep into U.S. and world history. There are the pamphleteers, those early reporters who helped spread news and gossip in the Colonies.

There are details about the first publications, dating back hundreds of years. The American Revolution. The Civil War. World War I. Charles Lindbergh and his solo flight in 1927 across the Atlantic. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. World War II. President Harry Truman. Korea. Edward R. Murrow. Joseph McCarthy. President Dwight Eisenhower. The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Vietnam. Watergate. The Pentagon Papers. The resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Wars in the Mideast.

The Newseum’s top floor includes a terrace with one of Washington’s best views. In the distance is the U.S. Capitol. Copyright photo by Mike Padgett

Since its opening in 2008, a visit to the Newseum has been low on my bucket list. I was wrong. I didn’t realize the museum’s large size and its comprehensive history of the media as part of U.S. history. For me, with my 30-plus years as a journalist, our tour of the Newseum was very humbling.

We also visited the National Geographic Society at 17th and M streets. A new exhibit spotlights the recent book, “The President’s Photographer,” by John Bredar. Copies of several of the book’s photographs are matted and mounted on the display walls.

One of the photos, by George W. Bush chief photographer Eric Draper, shows Bush at a public school where he was speaking when he learned of the 9/11 attacks. The photo shows Bush taking notes while watching television coverage of the burning World Trade Center.

Nation’s capitol offers more than politics

Washington is a mesmerizing city. I love the energy of the neighborhoods with historic buildings, pizza joints, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, bookstores and dry cleaners, all on the same block.

It is an international city where media is a major player. Near Dupont Circle is The Front Page, a restaurant with a media theme. The restaurant is decorated with dozens of framed and matted historical front pages dating back many decades. The weeknight we were there, the place was busy. My Best Friend and I enjoyed the crab cake sandwiches with sweet potato fries.

She will tell you I couldn’t keep my eyes off the headlines, straight out of history, covering the restaurant walls.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I spent most of my life in the media world, first as a hardcore news consumer. I was in grade school when I began watching Edward R. Murrow. Later, Douglas Edwards, the news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and finally Walter Cronkite shared with me the important news du jour. Later, for more than 30 years, I was a newspaper journalist. I worked with several outstanding editors and photographers.)

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Apr 17th, 2011

4 Comments to 'Newseum Spotlights Centuries of News History, Major Events'

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  1. Carol Romley said,

    As usual your stories are great and full of information. I felt I was back in D.C. again, one of my favorite places. I did not know about Newseum, I will be sure to go there on my next visit.
    Thank you Mike.

  2. Helen said,

    This is such a thoughtful piece, Mike. Your humanity comes through as you re-experience the historic events. It was such a privilege to share that day with you. Your photos really help to tell the story.

  3. Mike– I went to the Newseum on my last trip to DC. It was a cold and rainy day as well! But I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect experience. I was by myself so was free to wander on my own schedule. So much to see and experience – one day was not nearly enough. It is must-see for anyone in the communications business, for sure. Well, for anyone really.

  4. Peggy Hodges said,

    Only had time to pass by when we were in DC but your story does make me wish we had the time to visit. You bring these events to life and your selection of pictures add so much. Those of us who have always appreciated history brought to life will truly enjoy reading this article.

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