When the Newseum in downtown Washington closed on Dec. 31, 2019, I felt ambivalent. Was it symbolic, or not of the fretful demise of print journalism in our country?
I had visited the original Newseum in Rosslyn, VA and then again its modern reincarnation on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the U.S, Capitol. Both museums memorialized the crucial importance of the First Amendment—the undeniable need in a thriving democracy of a free, fair and unfettered press. The newer museum was notable, among other things, for its 75-foot marble tablet upon which the 45-word First Amendment was etched.
Something, however, nagged at me during my visits. When I viewed remnants of the Berlin Wall, or the twisted antenna of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, or the Watergate door linked to the break-in that eventually brought down the Nixon presidency, I wondered why a museum devoted to journalism seemed instead to focus on historical events.
While I realize, of course, that newspapers, TV and radio present what many consider the first draft of history–and I treasure that daily record—I questioned why the Newseum offered objects that belonged in the Smithsonian, or maybe a presidential library.
Due perhaps to how I studied and then practiced journalism, I believed that news gathering based on keen observation and accurate reporting belonged in the background. Except in rare instances, journalists were not newsmakers; they simply recorded what happened and why.
I suspect my comments place me solely in the past, oblivious to the personality-driven news gathering now so common in the American media landscape. We have “on air talent.” We have print reporters and columnists who have become celebrities based upon their books and TV appearances.
First Amendment practitioners now have a prominence that is pervasive and sometimes persuasive Their voices, as represented on TV and in print, have audiences craving their wisdom and viewpoints. This isn’t entirely new. So did CBS’ Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and Walter Cronkite in the 1960s and 1970s, and the New York Times ‘renowned James “Scotty’ Reston, whose career spanned from the 1930s to the 1990s.
It seems to me that the celebrity culture has expanded exponentially in the media profession. It’s not necessarily bad or injurious to democracy. It’s just easier to assume a position of self-importance that might tarnish the product.
When Jim Lehrer died on Jan. 23, 2020, I felt the pangs of a past long gone in journalism. For 36 years, many sitting alongside Robert McNeil, Lehrer deliberately and effectively served as an uncommonly low-key news anchor on “PBS NewsHour.” He was as gray and neutral as current anchors are bold, glitzy and sometimes opinionated.
He understood one thing above all else: he presented the news of the day. He didn’t interpret it. He didn’t show or voice any reaction to the news. He sought no spotlight. News was serious, not to be trifled with in a cute or biased way.
The PBS NewsHour, known for its objective, in-depth presentation and analysis of the news, set no records in its number of viewers. But it did gain credibility and respect among many viewers who eschewed the dramatic and damning.
As a credit to his low-key personality, he moderated 12 presidential debates between 1988 and 2012. Post-debate media coverage rarely was about Jim Lehrer.
Some years ago, Jim Lehrer was the speaker at a University of Pennsylvania commencement in Philadelphia. What I recalled was his sense of humor. He recited in rapid-fire fashion the destinations of buses leaving a Continental Trailways Bus Depot in Victoria, TX. He said it was the first time he was paid to speak into a microphone. It was very funny, particularly by a person known for being boring.
Lehrer saved his humor and observations for an academic audience. He ruffled no feathers.
I’m sorry that the Newseum closed. I hope another one emerges with more modest aspirations. I even suggest using Jim Lehrer as a model for touting the contributions of journalists and newspersons.
The First Amendment is powerful and poignant. It need not be flashy.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.