A Complicated Relationship

Newseum Exhibit Explores FBI’s Interaction With the Media

Posted June 18, 2008 at 4:55pm

When the public thinks of the Unabomber, the Branch Davidian compound and top 10 fugitive lists, “the media” is probably not the first phrase that comes to mind. But at the Newseum, where history is viewed through the lens of those who reported on it, the role of the media in shaping events is paramount.

That role is analyzed in “G-Men and Journalists,” the Newseum exhibit about the relationship between the press and the FBI that opens Friday.

The exhibit features 200 artifacts and includes 14 sections, each examining a

major case or aspect of the FBI. It is timed to coincide with the agency’s 100th anniversary.

“Before the FBI building tour closed to the public after 9/11, it was one of the most popular attractions in Washington,” Newseum Executive Director Joe Urschel said. “We want to share these amazing artifacts from the FBI evidence vault with the public in an exhibit that looks at the complicated relationship between the FBI and the media.”

That relationship is “sometimes symbiotic and sometimes adversarial,” exhibit director Cathy Trost said. The Newseum tried to convey this through the cases it chose to highlight.

For example, the media were viewed as helpful in the case of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, whom the FBI captured in 1996 after the Washington Post agreed to publish a manifesto by Kaczynski that provided clues to his identity.

Just a few years earlier, though, the press was blamed for the effect its blanket coverage of the 51-day standoff during the 1993 Branch Davidian compound raid in Waco, Texas, had on the FBI’s investigation. [IMGCAP(1)]

“We wanted the exhibit to be a synthesis of the relationship between law enforcement and the media,” Trost said.

The Unabomber section, “A Mad Bomber and His Manifesto,” includes the exhibit’s signature artifact, the original 10-by-12-foot cabin in which Kaczynski lived in rural Montana. The domicile had been at an FBI evidence vault in California and was dismantled, driven across the country and rebuilt inside the Newseum.

To fully reflect the FBI’s 100-year history, the exhibit examines older stories such as investigations of 1930s gangsters. It also explores the agency’s first director, J. Edgar Hoover, greeting visitors with a statue of Hoover and an original office desk and chair that he used.

The exhibit does not gloss over some of Hoover’s less illustrious moments, including his investigation into Martin Luther King Jr.’s activities, sparked by his belief that King was a communist.

The Newseum tried to show its subjects with “warts and all,” Trost said. “We tried to give a balanced treatment of the successes and failures of the FBI and the media.”

One prominent point of interaction between the FBI and the press came with the creation of the agency’s Ten Most Wanted List in 1950. The FBI realized the advantage of such a list thanks to an International News Service reporter, who asked the agency to scrape one together. The ensuing front-page story in the Washington Daily News about the list helped the FBI capture a number a fugitives, and the bureau decided to publish a list regularly.

“G-Men and Journalists” also explores the case of Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber, and the 1932 kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son.

The Lindbergh case led to what Trost described as the “trial of the century,” with more than 500 reporters covering the alleged killer’s prosecution. The electric chair used to electrocute Bruno Hauptmann is on display in the exhibit.

Not every fascinating FBI case has as direct a media link, Trost noted. But at the same time, “We didn’t find ourselves in that position too much where it was a great FBI-only story or a great media-only story,” she said.

Whether the relationship between the two was “contentious or collaborative,” she said, “for this project, it worked pretty well.”