Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Newseum: Celebrating journalists and Freedom of the Press

I have not posted in a few days because Lori and I were "off the grid" celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. Thanks to all who sent us by email, Facebook and other means your wonderful good wishes and blessings!

So what did we do for our 20th? What any two news junkies would do if they were in Washington DC: We went to The Newseum. 

This amazing museum is entirely devoted to celebrating The First Amendment and highlighting the role of journalism in a free society. I highly recommend going if you are in our nation's capital. We spent most of the day there -- and while we were there we caught a glimpse from the museum balcony of President Obama in a motorcade speeding down Pennsylvania Avenue on his way to a speech at the National Archives. Yep, we are definitely news junkies.

As many of you know, Lori and I both spent most of our adult lives working for newspapers; I as a reporter and Lori an editor. We met at The Sacramento Bee during its glory years. So our visit to The Newseum was like rummaging around in the family attic. 

We saw newspapers with bylines by friends, and I was moved close to tears by the Pulitzer Prize photojournalism exhibit featuring photography from colleagues with whom we worked, like Don Bartletti of the Los Angeles Times and his series on the "immigration train" in Mexico (one of his photos is featured here). 

Years ago when Don and I worked together at The San Diego Union, we did a series documenting life in the shanty towns along the Tijuana River in Mexico. Don moved onto the LA Times and has continued to document life on The Border, and he won the Pulitzer in 2003 for which he richly deserved.

Also in the photojournalism display are photos from the 1984 Olympics which won the Pulitzer Prize for the Orange County Register. Lori was among the editors on that project, and she shares in the Pulitzer Prize. 

The museum has displays on stories I covered and that was fun to see. The first "big story" I was involved in was in 1976 when I was a stringer for NBC news. I worked primarily for Carl Stern on his series on COINTELPRO, the FBI effort in the 1960s to infiltrate and disrupt anti-war protest groups. There is a great display on that. 

Also featured in the museum are items from presidential campaigns, including 1992 and Bill Clinton. There was even a display of antiquated journalistic hardware, like the Tandy 120, the first generation of true laptop computers we used on the campaign trail that year (actually, the first was the Tandy 80, which we nicknamed "The Trash 80"). The computer memory could hold two 20 inch stories, so you had to erase one story before you could write another.

Elsewhere, the museum has the Unabomber's Idaho cabin in which he made his bombs. I have never seen the tiny plywood cabin until now. In 1996, Cynthia Hubert and I reported on the Unabomber case day after day for The Sacramento Bee, and we scooped the Washington Post and The New York Times for a solid two months running. Alas, none of our clips were on display (those on display were only from the aforementioned newspapers, which I think is major oversight, but what would you expect me to say?). Seeing the cabin was fascinating.

I could go on and on with journalism stories, but I won't. This I do want to impart: it struck home again with me that journalism is a calling. That fact was driven home to me by seeing on display the car driven by Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles on the June day in 1976 when he went to meet a source on Mafia corruption in Arizona. He was murdered by a car bomb planted by his source. Bolles' murder brought about the creation of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., in which I was active for two decades. His murderer went to prison.

Reporters like Don Bolles are still on the beat, putting themselves in harm's way all over the globe. The museum has a wall devoted to the memory of journalists killed in the line of duty, and it is moving to see so many familiar faces. Pursuing the news is more than a nine-to-five job. It is a calling to pursue the truth wherever it may lead. We are privileged as a free people to have great journalists still carrying notebooks and cameras, and I am blessed to count many of them as friends.

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