If one wants to experience the Fourth Estate’s “Fall of the House of Usher” moment, go to the Newseum, that three-cheers-for-me monument to self-indulgence crumbling as an unintentional exhibit highlighting the narcissism of journalists.
The 250,000 square-foot moneypit lost its president on Monday amid a financial review. The Freedom Forum, which launched the ill-advised venture before the internet craunched Newsweek, the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencier, and other mainstays of the mainstream print media, dramatically announced this week an exploration of “any and all available options regarding the building, including how the building and its various sections are utilized, full and partial sale/leaseback scenarios, joint ventures or additional condominium structures for shared use, and a possible outright sale of the landmark building located on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol.”
But if the directors allow condominiums to encroach on the exhibits, where will the Newseum find space for Ana Marie Cox’s turquoise slippers?
The museum charges $25 for what visitors to D.C. get for free at the National Air and Space Museum, Library of Congress, and Jefferson Memorial. This and the internet’s corrosive effect on the print journalism celebrated by the museum serve as the default answers to why the venture, built for $450 million less than a decade ago, struggles. But it really fails because journalists fail at their jobs. Americans don’t view their profession as one comprised of honorable people.
The problems of the Newseum serve as a metaphor, a literary device “Fall of the House of Usher” readers recognize, for the problems of the news media it celebrates. The mausoleum to dead-tree journalism features “sponsored content,” biased presentations, and mission creep ephemera, such as Lady Gaga’s meat dress. Like cable news’s fondness for showing cable news clips from other networks and the numberless shows on the press talking about the press, the Newseum lets the public know that journalists think very highly of journalists—and you should, too. The Newseum crumbles as the profession crumbles, and for the same reasons. Americans distrust and dislike journalists.
The most recent Gallup poll reported just 32 percent of Americans holding “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news media. This number sunk 23 points since 1999 and represents the record low in the history of the poll. You can go by what a thousand or so Americans told a pollster or you can use as a barometer that beleaguered Houstonian unbroken by Hurricane Harvey’s wind and rain but sent over the edge by CNN attempting to turn her low moment into high ratings.
“Y’all trying to interview people during their worst times,” the emotional woman lectured CNN correspondent Rosa Flores. “Like, that’s not the smartest thing to do. Like, people are really breaking down and y’all sitting here with cameras and microphones trying to ask us what the f— is wrong with us. And you really trying to understand with the microphone still in my face, with me shivering cold, with my kids wet, and you still putting the microphone in my face?”
Do you think she takes her kids to the Newseum anytime soon?
Edgar Allan Poe worked in journalism before turning toward fiction. In the former pursuit, Poe wrote an article about a hot-air balloonist who escaped his creditors by journeying to the moon, where he lived peacefully among its inhabitants, and in another one he detailed mesmerism’s ability to stave off death in the terminally ill through hypnotic trance. Surprisingly little separated Poe the journalist from Poe the novelist. The master of fantastic short stories first told fantastic short stories on broadsheets, if more for his own amusement than the reader’s. Poe did not seek to reprogram his audience. He wanted to make them laugh or to laugh at them.
The poetry and prose writer, who perhaps lampooned his journalistic colleagues with his over-the-top fake news, labeled his times as the “epoch of the hoax.” We, too, live in an “epoch of the hoax.”
Such times make for hard times for press shrines.