We spent two or so hours Sunday wandering the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue – a museum I had never visited nor knew extensively about. Its exhibits are all from the perspective of media. History-changing journalists, coverage, First Amendment rights, etc. But as I explored on my own, I found myself completely enamored by the 9/11 Gallery at the end of the fourth floor walk.
What drew me in initially was the floor-to-ceiling display of newspaper headlines from around the world depicting the coverage immediately following Sept. 11. Newspapers not only from the U.S., or even North America, but from all over the world – Singapore, Bosnia, Israel; the list continues.
Beyond the multitude of languages and scripts conveying the devastating attack on Americans, I found the headlines themselves to be an especially interesting observation on the impact of even the most minute details within that headline.
Many headlines used the most passionate and striking three- or four-word sound bites from comments and speeches given immediately after the attacks. For sake of illustration, “our nation saw evil” was used as lead headline on a number of publications. However, the font script and size had a drastically different effect on the feeling emoted – one may convey terror while another desperation; a smaller, block font lent a direct, matter-of-fact nature, while a softer, bolded, but lowercase version evoked more somber, devastated sentiments.
The selection of a quote itself was also particularly influential, as well as word choice in general. A headline of “TERROR” plays a far different role in media portrayal and subsequent American fear and feelings than does the top headline “We Mourn.”
With harrowing footage captured on camera by photographers holding their shot as long as they could before running for their lives, the exhibit displayed the varying forms of media coverage – print, broadcast, radio, and still photography. Journalists on 9/11 provided the only real-time thoughts, fears, and terror of New Yorkers who experienced the destruction alongside the media. The nature of the coverage offered a leveled ground, where journalists were no longer reporters asking questions, but humans seeking answers and at as much a loss as their “interview subjects.”
In an exhibit designed specifically from the media perspective, the 9/11 Gallery provided a memorial for lost journalist William Biggart and an honor to the media coverage that zeroed in on the nation’s consumption during the days following 9/11. In a very one-faceted take on 9/11’s impact, the Newseum’s Comcast-sponsored exhibit focused directly on the shift and growth in media coverage that emerged from the terrorist attacks.
However, such a narrow focus also runs the risk of being perceived as too narrow – does it completely disregard the multitude of victims who died that day by never directly focusing on them? Is a focus on the coverage of the devastation too indirect a memorial of tragedy?
Be it productively specific or a slight brush-off of the larger civilian impacts of that day in history, I believe that is best left to the individual experience one may have touring the gallery.