Visiting the Newseum: The present and future of the press

Sunday, March 4, 2018 - 8:09pm

The author standing in front of the Journalists Memorial

The author standing in front of the Journalists Memorial Buy this photo
Sam So

As a fourth grader, my afternoon routine was simple. After getting off the bus, I’d make myself some microwavable macaroni & cheese and settle in with a copy of The Detroit Free Press. I’d usually start with the sports section (no one knew the Pistons like I did) before moving on to the news section, film reviews and, finally, the comics. The day the Freep stopped delivering to my household was a dark one and I unconvincingly pleaded with my parents to pay for the new, much more expensive special delivery fee.

My love of the news didn’t stop as I grew older (even if daily newspaper deliveries did). In high school, I joined my school paper and fell in love with being on the other side of the business. While the readership was small, I relished the power of a platform and its ability to shape conversation. This led me to join The Michigan Daily where I found my way to Michigan in Color — the section of The Daily dedicated to uplifting voices of color.

However, as a member of MiC, my rosy view of the journalism industry began to dim. MiC was founded because The Daily lacked the voices of students of color, which led to the mischaracterization and oftentimes racist depictions of students of color. The founders of MiC felt they couldn’t trust journalists to properly convey the real experiences of people of color, so they created a section where we would write for ourselves.

Fast forward to a week ago. Since I first heard about the Newseum, I’ve been intrigued. The museum is intended as a testament to the First Amendment — freedom of the press, speech, religion and petition — and its importance to a thriving society. From my first steps into the building, I felt the weight and responsibility the press puts on itself. Famous quotes about the importance of the First Amendment, and the press in particular, covered the walls while exhibits contained information and old news clips explaining the role of the press in the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and uncovering injustice around the world. Highlights included a timeline of front pages of newspapers from pivotal points in history and the sobering memorial to journalists murdered for their work in pursuing justice.

The Newseum is a glorification of the press. In these hallowed halls, the press is always on the right side of history — always there to stand up for the rights of the oppressed, always objective, always the hero. However, I take issue with this the lack of nuance, and honestly, the reality of the building. The Newseum ignored one of the tenets of good journalism: Always tell the whole story. For all the headlines the Newseum showcased that exalted the Civil Rights Movement, they missed the ones decrying its protesters as “troublemakers” or “rioters.” The Newseum can cherry-pick the front pages for the ones that portray the press in a good light, but it doesn’t erase the harmful work that has occurred and continues to this day.

For its faults, I cannot entirely dislike the Newseum or the industry and values it so lovingly portrays. The press is a vital institution for a fair society and historically it has been a part of social change and progress. However, for all its virtues, members of the media must come to terms with the harm those same actions can cause. For all the Watergates and Pentagon Papers journalism unveils, it does not mitigate that the news industry was the main driver of associating Islam with terrorism.

As the “first rough draft of history,” the news often shapes what and how people think. When the only stories of people of color are negative, how will society react? When Black people who march are rioters but white people who march are protesters, what will society think? I want to be clear, this isn’t a critique of the Breitbarts of the world. This is a critique of the New York Times, Washington Posts, and Michigan Dailys — papers that strive for greatness but either ignorantly or willfully continue the marginalization of vulnerable populations. It’s easy to rest on the laurels of journalism’s success, but we cannot act like journalism is immune to the racism, sexism and bigotry that permeates society. The press often acts as an accountability measure for governments and corporations — it’s time we shined that spotlight on ourselves.