The ladyfriend and I are celebrating our anniversary this week, and because we are both total nerds, we did it up by taking the weekend MARC train to D.C. for a weekend of learning fun. It was hard to balance our desire to read ALL THE SIGNS at the museums with my sense that we should figure out a way to use all 12 cushions of the giant blue couch in our hotel suite’s “living room” (free upgrade for joining yet another points club!), but after spreading out for a bit and skipping through the cable channels on one of two televisions at our disposal, we decided to head out and wait for the bus to take us to the Washington Mall for an afternoon at the Newseum, discount tickets purchased through yet another coupon site because I am insufferable about savings.
The ladyfriend had wanted to go to this place for years, and she promised awesomeness. She’s generally right about things, so I happily went along for the ride. Thing is, though, I’m a skeptic when it comes to mainstream news, the same stories following the same narrative arcs over and over again, rarely giving even a nod to the complexity scaffolded underneath most things. We’ve seen that in Baltimore especially over the past month where the deeply complicated history that has produced this city with all of its inequalities has been reduced, over and over again, to the narrative of The Riot, as if one night of property destruction comes out of nowhere, its ramifications fading as the next breaking news hits the headlines. The explosion of think pieces and “takes” has multiplied the frames of the story, but still, there are only a few main narratives that are breaking through, each purporting to tell the rest of us the right way to think about what is happening. News is never a simple recounting of what has happened; there are always arguments embedded in every narrative, every storytelling. There’s nothing wrong with that—every view comes from somewhere—but there’s something about the air of objectivity of mainstream news that rubs me the wrong way. The 24-hour news cycle mitigates against thinking differently or deeply about things, something I notice especially when stuff’s complicated; all we are getting is a series of predictable sound bites.
The first stop on the tour is an exhibit about the Berlin Wall. I’m not sure why this gets such pride of place. I mean, it’s not about news itself, even if it made great news, and it seemed a bit of a stretch, their arguments that it was the work of journalists that ultimately got the Wall to fall, as if East Germans would never have understood their own deprivation without someone from the outside shouting stories of their oppression at them. That said, the exhibit was totally interesting. I was 14 when the wall fell, and as nerdy a kid as I was, I spent a lot more time trying to keep my hair perfectly flat on its way to a ponytail than keeping up with geopolitics. The exhibit mostly reminded me that I barely know anything about anything that has ever happened in Eastern Europe.
We next made a brief stop at the cafeteria where I studiously avoided the pay-by-the-pound salad bar—what, was I born yesterday???—and choked down a veggie burger before losing the ladyfriend in the special FBI exhibit for more than an hour. This part was so tangentially related to news that I just couldn’t take it seriously. “Big FBI cases and the news stories that covered them” is a total stretch, and it seemed pretty obvious to me that the exhibit was curated by the FBI. I mean, there was a whole corner dedicated to the idea that the media didn’t give the FBI enough credit for how they handled the 1993 Waco siege against the Branch Davidians. When the fourth estate is funded by the first, well, like I said, I’m a cynic.
The ladyfriend, an inveterate reader of ALL THE SIGNS, finally emerged, and we made it up the glass elevator for the rest of the tour. And it got good, really good. The top floor’s main hall held drawer after drawer of newspapers, one from each year dating back to the 1700s. There was the front page about the capture of Nat Turner, copies of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, Frederick Douglass’ North Star. There were front pages covering the start of the revolutionary war, the financial panic of 1873, heralding the transcontinental railroad, introducing birth control pills and personal computers—so many stories, a record of so much of what matters even as so much is left out, and my cynicism started to leak away, replaced by gratitude for the work these storytellers do.
And then I was in the room dedicated to coverage of the plane crashes of Sept. 11, 2001. I lived in the Bay Area in 2001, and by the time I woke up that day, all I had were the news stories, the digested bits and narratives of American Power in the face of Terrorism. And then I finally got through to my twin sister late that evening. I knew she was far from the violence itself that day—unless you worked down there, you didn’t really go down there, but I vividly remember hearing her voice, collapsing straight down in a pile on my kitchen floor, the sadness and fear and exhaustion that exceeds any narrative, and I remember her wishing for space between the news narratives and the politics that would give her and the rest of New York space to actually grieve what was, for them, incredibly personal loss. And I thought about what Baltimore has been through, keeps going through, and the vast distance between the narratives and the real sadness, anger, grief that can’t be captured in all the stories and blogs and photos in the world, and then the Newseum was closed, and we found ourselves at a bar, drinks and apps, because what are you going to do.