A Message from Jeffrey Herbst

Jeffrey Herbst

Jeffrey Herbst, president and CEO of the Newseum and the Newseum Institute, in the Time Warner World News Gallery. (Maria Bryk/Newseum)

Dear friends of the Newseum,

November marks my three-month anniversary as president and CEO of the Newseum. During that time, I have dedicated myself to getting to know the people who work in our magnificent building, engaged in many discussions with longtime supporters, and reached out in Washington and across the country to those who can provide wise counsel about our mission.

These have been exhilarating discussions. The Newseum is an extraordinarily healthy organization ideally poised to play an important role in addressing some of the most challenging problems our country and societies around the world face today. Across the country, there is an appreciation that the Newseum has become an integral part of Washington’s intellectual and cultural landscape, hosts numerous events celebrating and discussing First Amendment issues, and serves as a constant reminder of the importance, and fragility, of freedom in the United States and around the world. Unlike many Washington institutions, we cannot be placed on the political spectrum; our only objective is to defend and promote the five freedoms of the First Amendment.

In just the next few months we will:

  • Open our new FBI exhibit to highlight the ongoing challenge of combating terrorism and cybercrime. On Dec. 9, I will interview FBI Director James Comey on “National Security and the First Amendment” in the Newseum’s Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater.
  • Revamp our New Media Gallery to feature cutting-edge technology focusing on the 2016 campaign from CNN Politics, Facebook, Zignal Labs and other technology companies.
  • Launch our new educational initiative designed by our Religious Freedom Center to help religious leaders of all faiths better understand and apply the religious liberty principles of the First Amendment.

At the same time, we seek to become even more actively involved in the central debates of our time. For example, there is great excitement, anxiety and confusion (sometimes all at the same time) about the technological disruption of the media and what it means for an informed citizenry. Will Americans and citizens of other countries become better informed simply because they have access to more information? What will happen to traditional forms of journalism, such as investigative reporting, when the news industry’s financial model is being challenged? How will our understanding of government accountability evolve as local news reporting seems to be particularly threatened?

In the post-Edward Snowden era, it also is clear that we have to wrestle with the enormous advantages that surveillance technology may provide for security while at the same time guarding against erosions of freedom. New technologies have surpassed our current understanding of regulation and oversight and we now must be as innovative in understanding the evolving nature of freedom as we are in developing the latest machines.

Many also are rightly disturbed about the decline of press freedom and free expression worldwide. Journalists increasingly are being threatened and a number of countries have defied previous predictions and developed measures to censor the Internet, either through elaborate technical means or the more traditional route of harassing and beating up bloggers. We have very little green — the color that denotes a free press — on our Time Warner World News Gallery map of world press freedom.

There is also a great desire for the Newseum to do more in the area of religious liberty.   The headlines suggest that our society needs to think intentionally and constructively about issues of conscience and expression that threaten to divide us. Overseas, we see that many countries have been ripped asunder by an inability to tolerate religious pluralism, and other societies are threatened.

This is not a complete list of the issues that our friends and informed observers note, but they do give some idea of how important our mission is and the high hopes that many have for the Newseum to play a leading role in issues where few neutral actors play.

Our mission is respected and secure. However, there is a great need and an opportunity for us to be even more active, public and forward-looking to promote freedom. We will meet this need through a variety of means that are uniquely available to the Newseum:

  • Increasing visitorship: By enhancing our exhibits and increasing our outreach, we will attract even more than the 815,000 visitors who come through our doors each year. Our reputation as a world-class museum continues to grow and the Newseum’s visitor satisfaction scores are among the highest in the world. As we increase our annual visitation, even more visitors will be deeply affected by our compelling exhibits and will join us in our mission.
  • Facilitating solutions: By using our power as a neutral convener, we will bring together stakeholders on different issues who have not found a way to reach consensus. We have long presented many programs on compelling issues of the day, but in the future we will also intentionally structure conversations to generate solutions to some of the pressing challenges that must be addressed.
  • Expanding digital outreach: By maximizing our use of digital media, we will reach many more people who want to learn more about the foundational freedoms of our society but cannot visit us in Washington. Our current digital education program reaches 2.2 million students and teachers around the world, while our social and digital impact grows stronger each month. With more than 25 professionals creating content for online distribution, including news, podcasts, videos and columns, we have the ability to greatly increase that audience at little cost.

An early indication of how I am demonstrating that the Newseum can be out in front came with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington in September. China’s record on press freedom, free expression and the exercise of religious liberty is terrible and has actually become worse under Xi. We developed a multimedia campaign to bring attention to the plight of freedom in China.

  • I wrote an op-ed titled “Welcome, President Xi” that was prominently featured in the Sept. 21, 2015, edition of The Wall Street Journal.
  • We used the building itself to display a series of banners in Chinese. The banners were illustrated by a Chinese calligrapher and included slogans such as “Release Human Rights Defenders in China,” “Long Live Freedom, Long Live Democracy” and “Chinese Government Should Respect Human Rights.” Images of journalists and dissidents currently imprisoned by China’s government were featured in cases along the entrance of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue.
  • We worked with nine human rights and international journalism groups and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to produce programming for the seven days of the campaign we called “Freedom Week.”

These efforts, funded, in part, by the generous contributions of some of our longest-standing members, were supported by a dedicated staff who responded with energy and ingenuity to a set of initiatives that were unprecedented for our organization. Worldwide response was gratifying and informative:

  • Freedom Week generated 300 unique news articles.
  • The press release that was distributed on Sept. 23 was posted on 101 websites reaching an audience of 10.4 million viewers.
  • Approximately 500 tweets featuring the #FreedomWeek hashtag reached more than one million people and made 2.5 million impressions. Tweets were nearly universally in support of the Newseum posting the banners.
  • Targeted posts on Facebook, which featured a Newseum produced video, reached more than 52,700 people, and the video was viewed more than 29,500 times.

We will continue to be nimble and innovative in developing new tactics to protest violations of freedom when opportunities present themselves. At the same time, we will act strategically to develop sustained efforts to address challenges that our supporters and critical members of our society believe we are uniquely able to address.

I hope that you will look to us as a primary resource for the issues that you think are most relevant to our foundational liberties. Your suggestions, challenges and support will be especially helpful to me as we chart the future of the Newseum.

I look forward to working with you. It will be a great journey.

Sincerely,

Jeffrey Herbst
President and CEO

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