#32: taking a bird's-eye view

reflecting on the Newseum, history and 50 years of journalism

In this letter:

📌 Key Tip: Every so often, I appreciate taking a bird’s eye view on the news. Today we cover a few ways how.


Good morning,

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my favorite museum in DC, Newseum, an interactive museum dedicated to journalism and news history.

It permanently closed its doors on December 31, 2019 due to financial trouble, and just in time for the new decade in which trust in news would be eroded beyond imagination.

I had been visiting the Newseum pretty much annually during all of the 2010’s. Several of the exhibits were permanent fixtures and year after year I would spend a full afternoon studying the evolution of mass media, the wall filled with front pages of newspapers from September 12, 2001, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the color-coded map of the state of global press freedom by country.

I don’t know why I loved it so much. I guess perhaps because it was a birds-eye view on an industry whose affectations and accoutrements I have always been charmed by, but whose actual purpose, value and blind spots I’ve always been troubled by.

A habit I developed after my many visits to the Newseum is to scan the front pages of newspapers around the world, which are still collected by the Freedom Forum online. I do it every so often, but technically you can do this every day. The library at Teachers College, where I used to work, did it daily and then posted a few selections.

When I looked on Saturday (9/11/21), the vast majority of America’s print newspapers had something on the front page about the 20th anniversary of 9/11, as did the European papers in the gallery. The rest of the world, not as much. Which isn’t surprising, but is also an important reminder about what journalism is.

Put romantically, journalism is “the first rough draft of history,” as we learn in j-school. Put plainly, it’s agenda-setting by people in power, ostensibly serving their communities, but often with huge gaps.

On a related note, I really enjoyed this NYT interactive on how students in 12 countries learn about 9/11, which reads in part:

South Korean and Indian students learn that the strikes on the World Trade Center in New York and on Washington were a consequence of globalization. A Pakistani textbook describes the attack, which left almost 3,000 dead, as an “incident,” and dwells on the risks that come from American hegemony.

Striking an even sharper note, a textbook of Modern and Contemporary World History from China includes a photo of the twin towers in flames near a section on geopolitics. “No one power can dominate the world on its own,” it says.

“What are textbooks and what are they for?” Ms. Herman asks. “It would seem simple: that it's for educating kids. But it’s actually for setting national agendas, for sharing a particular narrative. And sometimes it’s for educating kids.”

While I can’t visit the Newseum anymore, I really love projects that allow me to zoom out. Here are three recent discoveries I am eager to dig into:

Book: Inside the Upheaval of Journalism, Reporters Look Back on 50 Years of Covering news

At a recent alumni event for Columbia Journalism School featuring a discussion amongst members of the class of 1969, (apparently they have a listserv on which they’ve kept in touch for the last 50 years and I immediately wanted to read it), so I was happy to hear they also wrote a book together that came out in March 2020. I love human accounts of change, and to be the journalists who lived through the transformation of media from the civil rights era till today sounds fascinating.

Newsletter: Roaring 20s

Former hedgefund analyst James Derek Tate recently started a free newsletter in which he reads print editions of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal from 100 years ago, and summarizes financial news in the decade-long lead up to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Why? He writes:

The 1920s was the first decade where markets went mainstream, and both promise and wonderment beguiled the general public. This is the world of Jay Gatsby and Josephine Baker. New inventions and relaxed attitudes towards financial instruments gradually coalesced into a toxic cocktail at the end of the decade. 

The intention of this newsletter is to explore how markets moved and journalists reacted between 1921 and 1929: the Roaring 20s.

Podcast: Now and Then

I enjoyed the introductory episode of the new podcast, Now and Then, on Vox Conversations, on which historians Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman make sense of the week’s news from a historical perspective. The actual podcast can be found here. What I love is the format, and while there are great history shows out there by BIPOC, I haven’t yet found them in this exact format: a news show that tethers history to the week’s news. Open to reccs if you know any!

Happy Monday,