In the summer of 1976, Don Bolles, a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Republic, got a tip for a story involving land fraud, the mafia and U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater. Bolles arranged to meet a source in the lobby of a Phoenix hotel, the Clarendon House, just before lunch on June 2. He went there and waited, but the source didn’t show, so Bolles went back to his car, a Datsun 710.
The car bomb that mortally wounded Bolles in the hotel’s parking lot inspired more than three dozen reporters and editors to take leave from their regular jobs and descend upon the Arizona desert to finish his work. They spent months documenting cases of land fraud connected to criminals, politicians and police -- all to prove that the act of killing a journalist could not quiet investigative reporters or the press. The work of the so-called Arizona Project culminated in a 23-part newspaper series published the following year.
Bolles’ assassination and the reporting it inspired are memorialized in an exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., the centerpiece of which is the shell of his burned-out Datsun. It is one of many exhibits documenting the sacrifices of reporters, editors, photographers, camera operators and television producers in the act of reporting the news.
Unfortunately, those public displays are not long for this world. Last week, leaders of the Newseum announced plans to close the attraction on Pennsylvania Avenue at the end of this year, succumbing to financial pressures that have plagued the organization for some time now. The decision to close the 400,000-square-foot museum, built for $450 million 11 years ago, is a disappointment for tourists, historians and those who’ve dedicated their careers to gathering the news. The symbolism of its disappearance is unsettling on a much broader level.
The Newseum is more than an elaborate exhibit about journalism. Its greater purpose is to show the value of verified, timely news and information as a shared resource to our communities and our country.
Its most iconic exhibits suggest the importance of news at major crossroads in history: There is a section of the Berlin Wall claimed after it fell in 1991, and a three-story tower from Checkpoint Charlie, once the heavily guarded passage from West to East Berlin. There is a 360-foot television antenna recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. There is a display of every Pulitzer Prize winning photograph taken since 1942, when the award was first given.
The museum also chronicles the value of information about events that are far more mundane — council meetings, car crashes and decisions of local school committees. It does so in a display of newspaper front pages from across the United States — including this newspaper’s — that is updated every day.
And it chronicles the cost of delivering this information — from journalists killed covering wars and tragedies, to those who were reporting local news, as was the case for Bolles or Chauncey Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post, who was assassinated while investigating a story in 2007.
Among its more somber exhibits is a two-story, glass memorial inscribed with the names of 2,344 journalists who’ve died while doing their work.
When the Newseum closes — the building is being sold to John’s Hopkins University for a reported $373 million — its artifacts will be returned to their owners or locked into storage. Here’s hoping that the Freedom Forum, the organization behind the museum, can quickly find a more sustainable home.
In announcing the museum’s closing, the group underscored its continued commitment to championing the five freedoms ensured by the First Amendment — including freedom of the press — which happen to be celebrated as part of “National Newspaper Week” this coming week. It pledged to continue educational programs in the D.C. area and maintain an online presence.
That won’t be the same as having a spot to visit to think about the value of journalism, and the sacrifices made by those committed to it. But it does not diminish the value of news and information about our communities, delivered by this newspaper and others across the country.
That has never been more important — even if there is no longer a museum on Pennsylvania Avenue that celebrates it.