Goodbye, great friend
by Rhina Guidos
It felt a bit like an Irish wake, and if you’ve never been to one, it was an occasion to celebrate, not mourn, the passing of a friend. To many Chips Quinn Scholars the Newseum, which will close its doors on Dec. 31, has been a great friend. It was a type of Disneyland for newshounds at its first home in Rosslyn, Virginia, and at its second and grandest location on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., between the White House and the U.S. Capitol. It was the place where you could grab a microphone and pretend to be a TV reporter, play news trivia, listen to a Washington newsmaker and even watch a presidential inauguration parade go by.
The Newseum’s visual exhibits – part of the Berlin Wall, a door from the Watergate Hotel, a damaged car that belonged to an investigative reporter killed on the job because of his work – forced you think about the First Amendment and what it means for a society. Its message inspired many of us, educated us, comforted us, felt like a safety blanket to grab on to when public officials, and sometimes the public, attacked our profession and even the inalienable rights the First Amendment protects.
When I walked through the Newseum’s doors on Dec. 11 for its final public program, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had that feeling we get when we don’t want to let someone go. With Chips Quinn Scholars Program Director Karen Catone, we watched a film celebrating its history, which included a cameo of the late John and Loie Quinn, the program’s co-founders. Loie wore one of her trademark hats, and John, his trademark glasses. We encountered two journalism greats: Freedom Forum Institute Trustee (ex officio) Félix Gutiérrez and Trustee Mark Trahant, who is also executive editor of Indian Country Today.
For some of us, the event was like watching a treasured part of a glorious past end. Then Gene Policinski, president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute, spoke.
“As I’ve been saying to colleagues and friends and visitors and supporters of the First Amendment throughout the last year or so, we’re not simply a magnificent building with a great mission. Rather, we are a magnificent mission that is operated out of a great building,” Policinski said during the closing program. “The building will close but the work will go on. That magnificent mission of defending and explaining and educating about our First Amendment freedoms, that will continue. The First Amendment will continue to have champions.”
Those of us who live in Washington have lost a playground of sorts. It was a great place to hear a lecture, to take friends from countries where freedoms are more limited, to gather with colleagues from the industry. But Policinski was right: The work of the First Amendment is not what happens inside a building like the Newseum, but rather outside of it.
Chris Wallace, anchor of “Fox News Sunday,” reminded us of the great privileges many of us have enjoyed in the pursuit of our work and also of the great responsibilities that come with it. While some in the audience looked at him with a jaundiced eye, likely because of the political bias of the network that employs him, he shared many truths.
In the past, fairness was a basic requirement for our jobs as journalists, Wallace said. But with a president who is “engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history,” as Wallace put it, “many of our colleagues in the news business see our president’s attacks and his constant bashing of the media as a rationale, as an excuse to cross the line themselves to push back, and that is a big mistake.”
Wallace pointed out an emerging journalism trend of fact mixed with opinions, loaded and biased words used in mainstream publications and television shows, and errors of omission, particularly when it comes to reporting on the president, his administration and its work.
“The fact is, the president has given us plenty to work with, but when we respond to him like that, when we respond with bias, we’re playing his game, not ours,” Wallace said. “We are not participants in what we cover. We are observers trying to be objective witnesses to what is going on. If the president or anyone we’re covering says something untrue or does something questionable, we can and should report it, but we shouldn’t be drawn into the fight… drawn into taking sides, as tempting as that is. We’re not as good at it as they are and we’re abandoning the special role the founders gave us in this democracy.”
In an age when others are trying to delegitimize our work, our purpose as journalists should be clear, Wallace said. Others have pointed out the threats that come from trying to delegitimize the press, particularly a threat to democracy itself. But when we celebrate the Newseum and its work over the years, we need to keep clearly in mind our role as observers and our commitment to fairness and objectivity, he said.
“We should remember some essentials truths. First, ours is a great profession, maybe the best anyone ever thought of to make a living,” Wallace said. “Think of it. We get paid to tell the truth. How many people can say that? To cut through all the spin, all the distractions, and to tell the American people what is really going on, what’s happening in our schools, in our hospitals, in our neighborhoods and with our environment.”
Though there’s a greater perceived threat these days to the First Amendment and democracy, presidents come and go, he said.
“We will endure,” Wallace said. “So will freedom of the press.”