Selling America's Heritage

For more than 160 years the Smithsonian Institution made America’s remarkable history available to one and all. In keeping with founder James Smithson’s benevolent vision of "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men," the institution’s taxpayer-subsidized museums, exhibits and archives used to be open to the general public, students and legitimate researchers. But not anymore — and it’s an outrage that I’m taking personally.

My "War Stories" producers and I asked for access to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington’s Dulles International Airport. We were commencing production of a documentary on nuclear weapons tentatively titled, "From the Manhattan Project to Tehran" and wanted to shoot a few minutes of videotape of the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945. Our requests fell into a bureaucratic black hole. Now we know why.

We were initially told that our application was being processed by the Smithsonian bureaucracy. In a series of written, e-mail, telephone and personal exchanges with Smithsonian officials we explained what we wanted to do, how we would do it and offered to compensate the museum for any expenses incurred. What we didn’t know was that the institution’s management had concocted a secret, backroom deal with Showtime — granting the premium cable TV channel, owned by media giant Viacom, exclusive rights to control all but "incidental usage" of all video footage shot at the Smithsonian.

Two weeks ago the Smithsonian’s brass handed down their verdict. Claire Brown, the National Air and Space Museum’s director of communications, informed us that our award-winning "War Stories" documentary unit would not be permitted to videotape in this public facility. According to her, the four minutes of the Enola Gay that we would air violates an exclusive contract between Showtime and Smithsonian Networks.

When we protested this "final decision," the Air and Space Museum’s director of communications rebutted: "How do (you people) make money?" A far more relevant question is, "how does the Smithsonian make its money?"

I work for a publicly traded corporation. Its financial statements are disclosed according to federal regulations. And because much of the corporation’s business is broadcasting, its practices are subject to regulation and scrutiny by the U.S. government, and therefore the public. Finally, the shareholders of the corporation have a right to vote on how the company does business. Not so with the Smithsonian, where "We the People" are supposed to be the shareholders.

Though the institution purports to operate as a "public trust," it’s clear that the public can’t be trusted to know the terms of the cozy deal cooked up with Showtime. Apparently the Smithsonian’s management is free to make deals cloaked in secrecy with outfits like Showtime, without disclosing the terms of their arrangement or even defining what "incidental use" might mean for documentary filmmakers like those at "War Stories." When I asked a museum official just which broadcasters would have access to the museum’s collections and exhibits, I was told, "Applications will be reviewed on a case by case basis." Evidently that doesn’t include "War Stories" on FOX News.

What little transparency exists in how the Smithsonian operates is revealed in hearings and reports prepared for the House Committee on Administration and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, the two Congressional entities that theoretically exercise oversight over the institution. That’s how we know that Lawrence M. Small, the Smithsonian’s top executive, was paid $884,733 last year — more than twice the compensation of the president of the United States.

We also know that last year American taxpayers forked over $615 million to the Smithsonian, and that the institution’s management wants more this year because it is losing money.

Since the new leaders in Congress claim that they intend to "root out waste, fraud and abuse," they ought to inquire just why the Smithsonian is in the hole. While they are at it, here are a few other questions:

How much did Viacom pay for their exclusive rights to America’s treasures? Was this contract put out to bid so that others could compete for the privilege of broadcasting our nation’s heritage? Were brokers involved? If so, what were they paid? How long will this arrangement remain in effect?

Every American ought to know the answers to these questions. After all, it’s our history. But if America’s heritage is going on the block, it would be nice to know where to start the bidding for the Library of Congress or the National Archives.


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