The nation's new museum devoted to news -- the making, reporting and disseminating of it -- doesn't always adhere strictly to that theme. But even when it strays, it makes amends by showing visitors what generally can be classified as really neat stuff.
The $450 million, 250,000-square-foot Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks from the nation's Capitol, opened in April. The six-floor building is all glass and gleaming steel except for a 74-foot stone tablet etched with the words of the First Amendment soaring near the entrance.
The Newseum has 15 theaters, 14 major thematic exhibits and thousands of artifacts relating to the news. The relationship, however, sometimes can be tenuous.
For example, one of the first exhibits near the entrance to the Newseum is a display of eight 12-foot sections of the Berlin Wall, each consisting of several tons of graffiti-covered concrete. Nearby is a three-story East German guard tower from Checkpoint Charlie, the portal between East and West.
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The pretext for displaying the sections of wall is a series of video screens showing TV broadcasts about the Berlin airlift, the construction of the wall and the triumphant scenes of its being dismantled. That might be a slightly flimsy reason to bring pieces of the wall to the Newseum, but why complain when the display is so dazzling?
The newest display, "G-Men and Journalists," offers an equally superficial pretext. Museum officials insist they agreed to the exhibit only if they could show the sometimes thorny relationship between the FBI and the press.
That theme is broad enough to allow the display of items such as John Dillinger's death mask, which the late FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover used to keep on a bookshelf in his office. The display also features the ladder Bruno Hauptmann used to kidnap the Lindbergh baby and the electric chair in which Hauptmann was fried.
Remember the iconic picture of Patty Hearst, posed as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, carrying a sawed-off rifle and wearing a black pea coat and beret? The Newseum has the jacket, the beret and the rifle in a glass case.
Perhaps the dubious pretext of this exhibit can be forgiven if the Newseum actually is making news in the process, which, in this case, it is. Part of the G-Men display is the 10-by-12-foot cabin used by convicted "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski as his hideout in rural Montana. Kaczynski recently sent a handwritten letter to a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel complaining that exhibiting the cabin was insensitive to his victims and their families.
A little late to be worrying about that, Ted, don't you think?
Entry to the Newseum isn't cheap at $20 apiece for adults. When I went there last week, I asked if I, a longtime member of the working press, could get a discount. The reply was a firm, "No!"
I can imagine the museum operators warning the staff: "Don't forget, journalists are a bunch of freeloaders."
Spending an entire day in the Newseum is easy, and you still won't see everything. Some of the highlights include:
• A gallery of Pulitzer Prize photographs with a video featuring some of the photographers talking about their winning shots. The array of photos is breathtaking, often heartbreaking and generally awe-inspiring.
• A terrific "4-D" movie re-enacting great moments in investigative journalism. The fourth "D" consists of moving seats and other surprises sprung during the movie. Cheesy? Yep, but it works.
• A room full of historic front pages, dating from 1545 to today, displayed under glass. One of my favorite headlines in huge black type: "Jesse James Assassinated." This display also features such historical paraphernalia as Paul Revere's glasses.
• A display devoted to the coverage of 9-11. Sitting in the center of the room is the twisted wreckage of the TV antenna that had sat atop the north tower of the World Trade Center.
• A room devoted to comics, from "Alley-Oop" and the "Katzenjammer Kids" to "Calvin and Hobbes." It's funny.
The Newseum bills itself as the most interactive museum in the world, and opportunities to pull up different content by punching a button or playing with a touchscreen abound -- sometimes to the point of distraction. But even when the technological touches seem hokey, the content is consistently fascinating.
The Newseum is a great repository of journalistic materials that offers a solid overview of the history of both newspapers and broadcast news. I thought, going in, that I might be too jaded to enjoy the slick presentation and the glib reverence for the First Amendment.
Instead, I walked out better informed, stirred and proud of my profession.