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A Place With the Inside Story on News

The capital's Newseum offers the public a chance to understand how the media work

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In one computer game, visitors try to figure out who is responsible for toxic cheese in a local school. (Lesson: When you hit a blind alley, just back up and try another way.)

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Another offers choices of which stories should go into the paper - with lots of ways to make mistakes and miss the big story of the day. Visitors can also try reading a teleprompter as a television anchor and take home a tape of their performance.

On Sept. 6, the main interest was an afternoon panel with three working journalists on "Princess Diana: the Making of a Celebrity." Most of the questions focused not on how the news media had made a celebrity, but on whether they had contributed to destroying one by too relentless a pursuit.

"Isn't a famous person ever off duty as a celebrity?" asks one visitor. "Why couldn't the press just respect Diana's privacy?" followed up another.

"It's a very difficult line to draw. I know too many politicians who want to be covered only the way they want to be," said BBC correspondent Tom Carver.

"One of the problems the royal family has had is that courtiers have cut them off from the oxygen of the media. There were no newspapers allowed at Balmoral [estate in Scotland, where the royal family had been spending an August vacation]. Until [Prime Minister] Tony Blair called the queen, they didn't understand how big the public response had been to Diana's death," he added.

But both questioners and journalists agreed that the media still crossed the line into what should be a realm of privacy. An example: Was it really necessary for ABC News to tell its viewers that a participant in the memorial ceremony for the Princess of Wales had had an eating disorder?

As visitors exit the interactive newsroom, they pass an unintended and ironic counterpoint to the debate over the press and privacy: an exhibit of Harry Benson's warm and stunning photographs of presidential families, called "First Families: an Intimate Portrait From the Kennedys to the Clintons."

These photos seem to reach deep into the heart of family life, not to shock or titillate but to reveal something of the character of a politician and his family. If the families did not choose these photos, they might have.

Here John and Jackie share a private joke, Jimmy Carter hoses down a pavement, Bill and Hillary embrace on a hammock, and Pat Nixon brushes back a tear.

This exhibit is on display until Oct. 12 and then travels to Newseum, New York. Afterward it will tour presidential libraries through 2000.

Visitors with a day to spend in Washington already have a crush of museums and monuments to see, but museum officials say many are adding the Newseum to their list. In Arlington, Va., it's a short walk across the Potomac River from Georgetown, or two subway stops from the White House. Visits here differ every time because what's happening in the world changes.