May 30, 2020

New exhibit highlights 300 years of journalism in America

BOSTON — “The American Journalist: Paradox of the Press” is itself filled with paradoxes.

The exhibition, which has just opened in Boston, is a shrine to American journalism, featuring relics like Bob Woodward’s first Watergate notebook, Ernie Pyle’s typewriter and Margaret Bourke-White’s camera.

But the show also offers an irreverent look at media stereotypes and legends embodied in fictional characters ranging from Brenda Starr to Kermit the Frog.

Loren Ghiglione, the Massachusetts newspaper editor who curated the exhibition, was seeking just that balance.

“I had the idea of half-and-half fiction and fantasy, that the public’s image of us is based half on reality and half on fiction,” said Ghiglione, editor of The News in Southbridge.

For that reason, the 415-piece exhibition is split between the journalist of fact — the villain as well as the hero — and the journalist of myth.

The free public show runs through Sept. 18 at the Christian Science Publishing Center off Massachusetts Avenue. The Library of Congress and the American Society of Newspaper Editors coordinated the show through a $400,000 grant from the Freedom Forum, formerly the Gannett Foundation.

Exhibit interpreter Kathleen Tobin said many items have never before left the archives. But an early version of the show in Washington was so popular that authorities turned it into their largest traveling exhibition ever.

“It’s provocative, it’s entertaining, it’s happy and sad — and that gives it mass appeal,” she said.

The project began in 1987, when Ghiglione began exploring the paradoxes in journalism history during a one-year fellowship at the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University. The resulting book, which shares the exhibition title, became the blueprint for the show.

While the unprecedented collection of media memorabilia is sure to attract hard core journalism junkies, coordinators also hope it will draw — and educate — the average reader.

“I was trying to have the public also think about how they get their images of the press and therefore question whether this is really the reality,” said Ghiglione, past ASNE president.

Where possible, he avoided concentrating on the publishing dynasties and technological advancements that have dominated some previous exhibitions.

“I wanted to focus more on the working stiffs, the editors and reporters,” he said.

He did so in part by including their tools. One display case houses the notebook Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward used to jot down details about a burglary at Democratic National headquarters on June 17, 1972. In scribbling “5 men arrested at Demo Nat headquarters with soph (sophisticated) photo equipment,” Woodward wrote the first words on the scandal that became known simply as “Watergate.’

Nearby is the press pass of Meyer Berger, the legendary New York street reporter best known for his 1949 story on a war veteran who shot 16 people in East Camden, N.J. Berger went to the scene, interviewed 50 people and wrote a 4,000-word story — in less than three hours. Berger won the Pulitzer Prize — also on display — and donated the $1,000 prize to the veteran’s mother.

In a nod to broadcast journalists, an old-fashioned console radio continuously plays clips from the golden age of radio in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Television segments include Edward R. Murrow’s critical coverage of the Communist witch hunts led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954, Morley Safer’s Vietnam reporting in 1965 and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Historical artifacts include eight newspaper clippings found in President Abraham Lincoln’s wallet after his assassination. Two praise Lincoln’s efforts to end the Civil War, while others described the Confederate morale.

The exhibition doesn’t shy away from the shameful side of journalism. Covered in the “exploiters” category are William Randolph Hearst’s blatant efforts to promote the Spanish-American war and the use of “composographs,” phony pictures assembled from pieces of other photographs.

Coordinators also addressed the contributions and problems of women journalists, ranging from Elizabeth Cochrane, a 19th-century New Yorker who feigned madness to expose conditions in an insane asylum, to TV journalist Diane Sawyer, criticized for posing seductively in a magazine.

Minority journalists profiled include Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose ground-breaking novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was first published as a newspaper serial, and Elias Boudinot, a Cherokee newspaper editor murdered in 1839.

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