WASHINGTON, DC -- 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.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.