News You Can Use

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I was eating Wolfgang Puck fare, having just done a stand-up in front of the White House, built my own front page of the newspaper, and did some investigation into the arrest of an animal rights protester at the circus.

It was all in a night’s work at the new Newseum, a massive glass and stone structure a stone’s throw, or a bucket of mud’s sling, from the Capitol. The stand-up was a blue screen job and the newspaper an interactive game where you get stories on the front page by making ethical decisions like not reporting that the mayor’s toupee blew off in a windstorm (I got that one wrong).

NBC Universal threw its party at the not-yet-opened museum. That added orange cones and an occasional stray hard hat to the decor.

The interactive exhibits were in the tire-kicking stage with a bug or two to be worked out, but I can see this becoming a major tourist destination, with school buses filled with kids lining up.

It was kind of nice as a journalist to go somewhere that the profession was being celebrated rather than pilloried. The proximity to Congress is appropriate given that both politics and journalism are not atop the respect list when jobs are mentioned these days.

Given that it was an NBC party, I was susprised to navigate one of the interactive exhibits and find myself dealing with the Dateline NBC/GM "rigged" truck test issue.

The computer station (it is a high-tech, hands-on museum) offered me several different ethical issues including doctoring photographs and playing fast and loose with graphic elements, the latter was a case study of the Dateline story that was a big embarrassment for NBC back in the 1990’s (boy does "back in the 1990’s" make me feel old).

NBC clearly made a mistake, actually two or three of them, with that story.  It failed to inform viewers about how it had conducted a safety test and, if I recall, it reversed the timing of some footage for more dramatic effect.

But it also made a mistake, I think, in beating itself up too much and not immediately pointing out to people that the footage it aired of a truck exploding was of a test using an igniter, which was used in such tests. Instead, the impression was left that NBC had simply rigged the test to make it blow up when in fact they sloppily, or perhaps for tabloid effect, did not tell the audience that the truck exploded because an igniter, which was used in such tests, had produced the kind of spark that can happen when metal hits the road, and how that spark could cause the fire given where the gas tank was.

The Newseum piece presented it as essentially a question of whether or not you should use an igniter to create such an explosion or use existing footage of real crash footage, though I assume it would have to be the aftermath of a crash. I argue that is not the right question.  The question should be: "If you use such footage, should you tell viewers you are recreating a crash using an accepted technique that reproduces factors that can, but do not necessarily, combine to produce an explosion or fire."

After I finished the interactive poll, I concluded they should leave it as it is if it will scare journalists into doing the right thing for whatever reason. That’s because according to the results of the poll so far, 47% of the 17 self-described journalists who had taken the poll said they would stage the explosion as the Newseum presented the issue, while only 36% of the public (113 people) said they would do so.

One thing NBC did not make a mistake about was holding its holiday party at the Newseum. What a gorgeous venue. We got a cook’s tour (though not by Puck) of the offices of staffers and the board room, which has the best view in Washington with glass walls and a sweeping view of Capitol Hill and the Mall. And there is a terrace to give the Willard Hotel a run for its view.

Imporessive and probably opening by late first quarter or early second quarter 2008.

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