Freedom of the press

Everyone’s got their own way to celebrate Independence Day. Some people will contemplate how our country came to be. Others will honor friends and family who have served in the military or lost their lives protecting our country. And many people will be feasting on hot dogs and hamburgers, or sitting in an air-conditioned theater watching Eclipse.

As a journalist, I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom of the press. Last month, I got a chance to visit the Newseum, the national news museum in Washington, D.C. It was definitely a joyful experience for a news junkie like me. The museum is 6 floors of exhibits that span from the first newspapers and periodicals to the most recent channels for users to communicate news (like Twitter and Facebook).

I really enjoyed the museum. The exhibits had brief synposes at each display but generally let the news speak for itself.  This led to some powerful moments of contemplation, though after a while, print newspaper displays had a feeling of sameness that minimized their impact. When the museum varied from that format – as it did with its collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning news photos – the impact was enormous and visible on the faces of visitors like me.

I thought the Newseum missed a chance to more closely profile some major news figures. For example, Edward R. Murrow had his own corner, but a more comprehensive exhibit of reporters like the other “Murrow Boys,” as well as network anchors from Cronkite to Peter Jennings would be great. Despite the Newseum’s DC locale, only minimal mention was made of Katharine Graham and what the Washington Post accomplished in the 1970s. I definitely thought more profiles of celebrated local reporters and news anchors would be a plus, as well.  And virtually no mention was made of the current conflicts in media: Left vs. right, mainstream media vs. talk radio, and new media vs. traditional media.

But I’ve been thinking a great deal about a brief flash of a moment that happened while I was there. One exhibit had the current day’s front pages from a newspaper in each state. As we walked through the corridor, a group of students stopped at a computer display at the end. They discovered that the display had articles from newspapers translated into Spanish. One of the teenage girls rolled her eyes and said, “That’s, like, totally disgusting!”

I heard her, and made eye contact. After sending her as many evil-eye daggers as I could, her and her friends slunk away. For some reason, what she said stuck with me.

I realize we have a lot of conflict right now with the growing multi-cultural face of America and our ongoing immigration challenges.  These are complex issues with compelling arguments for each perspective; I wasn’t challenging her right to have an opinion on those ideas. (I have opinions that are as complex and contradictory as the issue itself.)

But she was in a museum that exists to celebrate the freedom of the press and the freedom of information in this country – and she was disgusted that information was being disseminated to people who spoke a different language. I just kept thinking: honey, you have SO missed the point of the museum.

Then again, kids of her generation probably don’t really understand what news is, or why freedom of the press is so important. The lines between news and PR are so blurry that even a trained eye has a hard time seeing where one stops and the other begins.

There’s no framework for many of these kids to understand why this freedom is important, or how to place it in context: a survey done in 2008 revealed that less than 50% of today’s students were able to identify when or why the Civil War was fought, or who we gained independence from in the Revolutionary War – the very independence we are celebrating today.

I don’t want to be a grumpy old guy (at least not yet, anyway). And perhaps I’m coming down too hard on a teenager – one who would much rather be in an air-conditioned theater swooning over Edward or Jacob than wandering around a museum looking at old dusty paper.

But journalism and media is just like politics: the more that people know, and the more that people from all perspectives participate, the healthier our media is and the more it rededicates itself to our ideals. And participation in one’s community and one’s country starts with the free, unedited flow of information.

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

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