Memorial Will Show the Public Why a Free Press Matters to Them

By Paul Goldberger
Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair, architecture critic

The complex and fraught process of siting memorials in the nation’s capital has generally proceeded from one key premise, which is that the broader and more inclusive the subject of a commemorative work is, the closer it deserves to be to the great axis of the National Mall or to the central civic spaces of the capital. Thus the memorials to Washington and Lincoln occupy central positions within the Mall itself; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is on the edge of the Mall, gesturing toward these two neighbors, and the recently constructed monument commemorating Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II is at a prominent intersection a few blocks away. When the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission was selecting a site for the World War II Memorial, it considered multiple sites and ultimately chose the Rainbow Pool in the center of the Mall, explicitly acknowledging the importance of the war as the defining event of the 20th century and the universality of the connection that most citizens felt to it.

By that same principle, every citizen has a connection to the free press, and to the importance it has played, and continues to play, in shaping the nation’s destiny. The journalists who have given their lives for their work may be unknown to most citizens, but like the soldiers who have died in the course of battle they stand for the larger effort of which they are a part. As a memorial to war dead is a reminder to the living of the urgency of the cause for which they sacrificed their lives, so, too, will the Fallen Journalists Memorial help all citizens to understand that freedom of the press matters to them, and is as critical to the preservation of their liberty as the military actions or the political achievements that are commemorated in other memorials in the capital.

Journalism, which is to say the freedom to seek out information, even if it is critical of the government, and to use it to explain and enlighten citizens as to the meaning of current events, is an essential part of American life. It is part of everyone’s experience, and as such, this memorial has the potential to communicate to a broader audience than almost any other recent monument. It is in the nature of memorials to look backwards, to remind us of great events and great people of the past in the hope that the reverence they inspire will be of some didactic benefit in the present. But the Fallen Journalists Memorial is different, since it is linked, implicitly if not explicitly, to the daily lives of every American. It will remind them that journalism’s mission is to secure their freedom. It is a memorial not only to people but to an idea: the uniquely American idea that without a flourishing culture of journalism, the nation cannot thrive, and that the free flow of information is essential to a functioning democracy.

The McMillan Commission in 1902 called for future civic structures in Washington to have “a visible orderly relation one to another for their mutual support and enhancement,” a prescription that referred to more than the commission’s wish to see a consistent architectural style. It was also a reminder that monuments and civic structures in the nation’s capital needed to reflect the nation’s aspirations, and in some way demonstrate its shared values. Placing the Fallen Journalists Memorial within Area I, where commemorative works are required to be of “preeminent and lasting historical significance to the United States,” acknowledges the promise of the First Amendment and of the importance of the free press in American history. In Area I, the unique role of journalism, never a part of government but always its watchdog, will be made manifest by its closeness to the halls of government, and the clear lines of sight between the memorial site and the Capitol Building. At the same time, the memorial will be a thing apart, a reminder to every citizen that journalism is independent, and that its independence helps preserve the nation.

Paul Goldberger is a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair. He served as the Architecture Critic for The New Yorker and The New York Times, and currently holds the Joseph Urban Chair in Design and Architecture at Parsons School of Design in New York City. He is the chief site selection and design consultant for the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation. To the role he brings a lifetime of experience with architectural design and a consulting portfolio, which includes the new Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He also serves as a design consultant to the Port Authority of New York on the new LaGuardia Airport and worked as an advisor on architect selection and design for Glenstone, a museum of modern and contemporary art in Potomac, Maryland.

To read all of the essays submitted to the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission in support of a prominent site for the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation, click here