Now Showing at the Newseum: “Feckless Attraction”

The Newseum, a Washington, D.C. tourist attraction, claims to “educate the public about the value of a free press in a free society and tell the stories of the world’s important events in unique and engaging ways.” Unfortunately, “unique and engaging” seems to trump the reality of “a free press in a free society.”


In a Sept. 30, 2013 press release, the Newseum announced a new exhibit—memorabilia from the 2004 film comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.  The movie depicts a fictional 1970’s San Diego television station at which a female reporter is added to an “Action News” format featuring a self-parodying anchormaniac.


In other words, a “The Three Stooges Take Over the News Room” variant. As Caitlin McDevitt put it in her report for Politico on the Newseum exhibit, paraphrasing a line from the film, “Way to stay classy, Washington”.


The exhibit, to be featured from November 14 through next August 31, will include movie curios including Anchorman Burgundy’s (played by Will Ferrell) mustache brush and “IM #1” license plate. According to Newseum Curator Carrie Christoffersen, the brush signifies the “vanity required by anchors in the 1970s” (“Old-school anchor gets his chance to be a museum piece; Newseum exhibit finds serious issues behind the satire of ‘Ron Burgundy’,” USA Today, September 30).  


What this has to do with a free press in a free society is anyone’s guess. Christoffersen attempted to defend the attraction by saying “we like to edu-tain. You can get educated and entertained.” Not to mention entertained and distracted. Call it “enter-straction.”


The Newseum occupies a large, expensive chuck of prime Washington, D.C. real estate between the Capitol and White House, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the National Mall and Smithsonian museums. It features a multi-story carving of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law … abridging freedom of speech, or of the press .…”) on its exterior, emphasizing the presumptive importance of what lies within.


When gaffes become fundamental flaws
But “there’s at least one sign that the Newseum knows when not to take itself too seriously: scattered tiles in the museum bathrooms are inscribed with journalistic gaffes and embarrassing corrections” (“Chasing the News; Mark Twain’s Inkwell to blogger’s Slippers,” New York Times, April 11, 2008). Now one more gaffe can be added to the tiles, the Anchorman exhibit.


The Newseum has had to invent whole categories of news artifacts to fill this Taj Mahal for journalism,” said Jack Shafer (“Down with the Newseum; We don’t need a gilded home for 6,214 journalism artifacts,” Feb. 27, 2008, The latest category isn’t news at all, but Hollywood slapstick. Speaking of Hollywood, the Newseum exhibit “reads” more like a promotional tie-in to the sequel, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, due in December.


The Anchorman exhibit relates at least indirectly to the Newseum’s inclusion earlier this year of representatives of terrorist organizations and regimes in its memorial to fallen journalists. Staffers of Hamas, Syrian and Iranian state media and state-affiliated outlets killed on the job in 2012—that is, individuals working as propagandists for dictatorial regimes and movements—were honored alongside actual reporters killed while covering the news.


In response to criticism, the Newseum suspended the honors and announced what has appeared to be an unjournalistically opaque review. 


What’s really going on at the news media’s temple to themselves? An investigative reporter might start with the lead to an Associated Press dispatch: “In five years since moving to its new home overlooking the U.S. Capitol, the Newseum has become a major attraction with 4 million people visiting its exhibits about journalism and the First Amendment. Yet it has been struggling mightily to cover its costs.


“Public financial documents reviewed by The Associated Press show revenue fell short of expenses by millions of dollars in 2009, 2010 and 2011.” This even though “the Newseum is the District’s most expensive museum, charging $22 for adults and $13 for youths ….” (“Newseum in D.C. makes changes as funding falls short,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 9, 2013). 


In that context, the Anchorman exhibit makes a certain kind of sense. So would selling popcorn at $5 a tub to those who come to see it.


Lee Golan is CAMERA’s Washington research intern. Eric Rozenman is CAMERA’s Washington director.


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