News & Politics

The Insider: Charles Overby

As head of the new $450-million Newseum, which opens April 11, Charles Overby has one of the best offices in Washington—a sweeping vista encompassing the Capitol, the Mall, and the monuments. A lifelong journalist and longtime Gannett editor, Overby won a Pulitzer Prize while at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

This article includes outtakes from an interview conducted with Overby in the April issue of the magazine.

I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a journalist. I took a high-school journalism course as an elective, and on the second day I remember turning to a friend and saying, “If they pay you to do this, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Knowing what you want to do in life at age 16 is such an advantage. The idea of being paid to ask people questions and to go to news events seemed to me to be spectacular.

I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. I worked for the local newspaper there and then went to Ole Miss. I’ve done politics, journalism. I’ve worked for a Democrat and a Republican. I’ve been an editor. I’ve been a reporter. Each has a special outlook, but each involves sizing up a situation and asking the right questions.

As we have hired our staff here, intellectual curiosity is probably the number-one thing we look for—not people who have all the answers but people who have all the questions.

Winning the Pulitzer is a matter of being at the right place at the right time. When I was in Jackson, Mississippi was last in the nation in education, so we launched a three-pronged campaign to document the state of the education system. The reporting and the editorials together won the Pulitzer for public service.

We were these no-name people in Jackson. What I know now about the Pulitzers is so much more than it was then. Now I know that among the big groups there’s generally a tip-off: “Hey, you’re going to win the Pulitzer.” We knew nothing. We submitted it and thought it was good, so I bought several cases of Champagne that day. The deal with the liquor store was that if we didn’t win, it went back. We read on the wire that we won, and it was like reading on the wire that you’d won the seventh game of the World Series.

I’ve been involved with the Newseum from the beginning. We bought the land in 2000, so this is more than a seven-year project. Buying a piece of land between the White House and the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue is just about equal to winning the Pulitzer Prize. We in essence won the last Pulitzer on Pennsylvania Avenue. We were in Rosslyn, and we were victims of our own success. Lots of people were going, and we were out of room. We’d shoehorned the museum into an existing office building.

Our mission is to educate as many people as possible about the First Amendment. Well, you fish where the fish are. And there are 20 million people a year who visit the Mall and all along Pennsylvania Avenue. We had 12 different sites and eventually narrowed them to either this spot or the old Woodies building. We offered $75 million for the property and $25 million for affordable housing. In Rosslyn, people had to want to go to the Newseum, but now there are 20 million people wandering by here.

What we have here is a point of reference. Everyone who comes in here will recognize the key stories of their life. The construction workers have been stopping to look at the exhibits—that tells me that they identify with them and they know these things happened while they were alive.

We realized even before we opened that the biggest misconception is that we’d be a cheerleader for the press. But there’s a full presentation in this museum—warts and all. We are without question cheerleaders for a free press, but we are neither cheerleader nor scold for our actual press.

The worst critics of the media are within the institution itself. There are so many Cassandra utterances and so much hand-wringing over how the future of media is doom and gloom. That’s just not right, in my opinion. We’re optimists at heart. The delivery vehicles will change. The Newseum shows how they’ve changed over the last 3,500 years—we have cuneiform tablets that date to 1200 BC.

Clearly, bloggers have emerged in a major way since we starting planning the Newseum. We had a radio/TV gallery, and pretty quickly we figured out it needed to be an Internet/TV/radio gallery. We’re not skeptical of bloggers. You can make a case that Thomas Paine was a blogger. I hope the historical perspective helps show that some of the new stuff is actually a throwback.

The First Amendment is the cornerstone of our democracy. Five freedoms: speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly. There are people who generally care about one of those five but not all five. Our number-one goal is educate about all five of those freedoms. Before they’re hired, every single person who works here is asked, “What are the five freedoms?” I get a lot of people saying the right to bear arms, but that’s the Second Amendment.

Out front, we’ve got a 75-foot high monument made of 50 tons of Tennessee marble with the 45 words of the First Amendment. It’s amazing you could get those five central freedoms in just 45 words. You couldn’t get one of those freedoms in 45 words in today’s Congress.

The First Amendment is a political document, and it’s much more fragile than many people realize. It’s not the Ten Commandments sent down from on high. I don’t think there’ll be a wholesale repeal of the amendment, but there’s a lot of chipping away. The conception “Congress shall make no law” just doesn’t exist today. Congress is making a lot of laws all over those five freedoms. That Tennessee marble has a lot of permanence to it. I want those freedoms to last at least as long as the marble does.

My home is right here at the Newseum residences. This is one big campus. We’ve got the museum, 135 apartments, Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant. There are days where I never leave the building. I get up, work all day here, and then have dinner at the Source.