Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Most Important Address in Washington, D.C. (Hint: It's Not What You Might Think)

Washington, D.C.—555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. That address, I think, is the most important one in our nation's capital. Because you can literally see the Capitol from the sixth floor of the 555 building, and because the White House is on the other end of Pennsylvania (at 1600 N.W.), you can rule both out as most important, though obviously each is significant in shaping our culture and governing our communities. There are the other great addresses of inspiration: the museums and monuments and congressional offices. But 555 is a place where the First Amendment to the Constitution literally scrolls down the side of the building, reminding passers-by of the five freedoms those other places of government are committed to preserving: speech, religion, press, assembly and petition—freedoms, we all know they (as in government officials) don't always get right.

Which brings us to 555, home of the Newseum, the country's first museum dedicated entirely to those gatekeepers of culture, those watchdogs of government, those voices for the voiceless: journalists. For anyone interested in journalism as either a doer of it or a citizen dependent on it, the Newseum inspires, challenges and instructs at the same time. Yes, it's interactive, fun and enormously creative. But it also provides the news from around the world everyday in its amazing rotation of daily front pages. Its history section gives clues to the perils and sacrifices made throughout the centuries to bring the news to people, to protect their freedoms, to expose injustices or to report the stories that matter to their lives. Its various memorials—whether to modern reporters who've been killed for pursuing the truth or to standard setters in early journalism—are enough to make even the hardened cynic appreciate the role journalism plays for each of us.

This place, with all its artifacts, films and exhibits, matters. When I visited again last week, I realized its importance anew as I sat next to a fifth grader on a field trip while we waited for a movie to start. Her black braids shot off her head, her enthusiasm spilled over her seat into mine. Before the 4D film began (and we weren't wearing the funny glasses) I asked her if she wanted to be a reporter. "Yeah, I think that'd be so cool," she said, a grin on her face nearly as wide as the Potomac. The movie started and she marveled—quite exuberantly I might add—more than anyone in the cinema. And when the credits rolled, she told me that was "awesome." I told her I hoped to read her byline someday and advised her to always tell the truth in her stories. She seemed confused. "Of course. What else would I tell?" she asked.

So if a place like the Newseum can inspire the next—and current—generation of reporters in an age when the industry could use vibrant reminders of its critical role, then I don't care how much or how long the place took to build (and much has been made by the nay sayers and cynics). I'm convinced, unashamedly: This is the most important address in Washington because it could affect so many other addresses in years to come.

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