The Elephant In The Room

flagcover

July 1943: NGM's first cover photo

“So where do you work?” the elderly gentleman asked me.

Tall, gaunt, and grey, he must have been about 80 years old. He worked behind the cash register at a small shop in Bethesda, and whenever I stopped in, he was always there, chatting up the customers.

“I work at National Geographic.”

“Oh,” he said, shaking his head in disappointment. “I used to love National Geographic, but now I hate it.”

“You hate it? Really? How come?”

Eisenhower“Well, during World War II, you gave maps to Eisenhower to help him fight the Nazis. And during the Korean War, you told us about our boys on the peninsula. But now all you write about is global warming and elephants.” He glared at me. “You changed.”

Strange, I thought. People were usually impressed when I’d tell them I worked at National Geographic, but not this guy. So I took a deep breath, and tried to win him over by describing some of the excitement he’d been missing. Stories about Egyptian archaeology… national parks… biodiversity hotspots… ice climbing… endangered species….

“Nah,” said the man, waving me off. “I still hate it.”

Driving home, I kept wondering why the guy was so annoyed, and why NGM’s efforts “to inspire people to care about the planet” didn’t inspire him. What was he thinking?

Maybe this:

Swaziland bare breasted women

from “Swaziland Tries Independence,” article and photographs by Volkmar Wentzel (NGM August 1969)

Back in the day, the Magazine — the official journal of the National Geographic Society spoke to me as if I was a member of a society, part of something bigger than myself. The Magazine made me feel like I was an active participant in a great adventure of a nation and a civilization that might be called America and the West Meet the World. In the pages of NGM, we saw an eye-popping kaleidoscope of differences nations and cultures and people who understood the world in dramatically different ways. (Exhibit A: In some places, women appear in public with their breasts bare.) We saw ourselves as inheritors of a great Story that reached back to Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem. We banded together to defeat Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo and then helped rebuild Europe. In July of 1976, we celebrated our nation’s bicentennial and the Magazine joined in with a special issue titled This Land of Ours. We knew who we were and who we were not.

Turtle CoverBut now, as you scramble to fill the pages of 30-plus local language editions, you try to talk to everyone, all at once. Groping for a common denominator, you tell us to be caretakers of the planet and huggers of trees. You seem to think that our greatest contribution is not to celebrate and defend human freedom and democracy, but to install compact fluorescent light bulbs. When you decide to unleash all the Society’s firepower on a single subject, you pick something like this. You’ve deemphasized the “National” and encouraged us to be “global citizens” (whatever that means). You no longer talk to us as members of anything at all except, perhaps, of the biosphere. Instead, you see us as customers for products and eyeballs for ads.

I’m as green as the next guy, but what the hell happened to our national adventure, National Geographic?

By the time I pulled into my driveway, I’d convinced myself the old man was stuck in the past, burdened by antiquated notions of loyalty, identity, and history.

But over the past few years, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve looked at what the Society was back then and what it is today and only one conclusion makes sense to me: The old man is right.

*          *          *

The “takeaway” (as John Fahey likes to say): Maybe people continue to give up their memberships in the Society because the Society gave up on them. Maybe the Magazine’s declining fortunes have less to do with the Internet, and more to do with the Magazine’s interests. And maybe the secret to National Geographic‘s success was that, in its heyday, it wasn’t “objective” journalism about the world, but a life-affirming journal about being in the world.

That’s a lot of maybes, but one thing we know for sure: Our story isn’t over yet….

__________
≡ Photo of Dwight Eisenhower via the George Eastman House
Photo of bare-breasted women via Dowbrigade

  • I.M. Bashful

    Your comment “But over the past few years, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve looked at what the Society was back then — and what it is today — and only one conclusion makes sense to me: The old man is right.” So many of us think this way. Very sad.

  • I.M. Bashful

    Your comment “But over the past few years, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve looked at what the Society was back then — and what it is today — and only one conclusion makes sense to me: The old man is right.” So many of us think this way. Very sad.

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  • Carto Joe

    People don’t “give up their memberships” any more. They stop subscribing.

    • http://societymatters.org Alan Mairson

      Well, technically, they do both. But I see your point.

      Of course, the fact that people no longer see themselves as members is part of the problem.

  • Carto Joe

    People don’t “give up their memberships” any more. They stop subscribing.

    • http://societymatters.org Alan Mairson

      Well, technically, they do both. But I see your point.

      Of course, the fact that people no longer see themselves as members is part of the problem.

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  • Luther Jett

     Alan, I’m re-reading this post, and it brings tears to my eyes. That great adventure story you mention? It’s still happening. We need to keep telling it. History has a point. Ideas matter.

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  • Keith Gardner

    As I’ve posted elsewhere along the line tonight, I was brought to this site by following a thread after doing a search on whether or not the NGS was still a not-for-profit organization. I have just been watching the Nat Geo Channel on cable TV and was so astoundingly shocked and disappointed by the lack of rigor and quality editing – but the presence of a lot of polish – that I knew something major had changed. I find now that it’s essentially John Fahey as CEO. That’s the change. Why NGS would bring in someone like that to lead the Society is way beyond my comprehension. It’s not about profit, it’s not about eyeballs on online ads, it’s not about viewership numbers. Or is it? I guess it is, now. But it never was. Yes, I too had the shelves of every issue of NG Magazine during my youth. I would remember articles or pictures long after, and would go back to them from time to time. It is utterly not that same organization now. 

    At the same time that Hewlett Packard is deciding to jettison its PC-making business, by which it is largely known to the world, to focus on business software, it makes me wonder just what kind of hubris it takes to lead a large and reputable organization to ruin, and what kind of perspective-less people are sitting on the boards of these organizations. 

    I shouldn’t say perspective-less; it’s just that it’s never been so nakedly obvious that the perspective is all about the bottom line, the dollars and cents. For a commercial enterprise, it’s one thing, and only history will tell us whether I’m right or Mr. Apotheker is right about the best course for HP. But for an educational and inspirational organization like what NGS used to be, to change it in the ways that it’s being changed are just such a shock to the system that the only recourse is to distance one’s self from them entirely. 

    • http://societymatters.org Alan Mairson

      Hi Keith,

      Your analysis is pretty accurate — although the challenge is to figure out how NGS can survive when print media is in a death spiral. Without some profit, without eyeballs, how will NGS pay the electric bill? meet payroll? support its various Mission programs?

      As I’ve argued elsewhere on this site, the challenge is to (a) articulate what makes NGS a Society, (b) acknowledge that photojournalism’s center of gravity has shifted forever, and (c) leverage the power of the 4+ million people who are still paying annual dues to belong to the Society. If we did that, then there are real opportunities ahead.

      While you say the “only recourse is to distance one’s self from them entirely,” I encourage you to stay engaged — and to do what you can to make it the Society you want it to be. In the end, the Society doesn’t “belong” to the Board, to John Fahey, to stockholders (there are none)… to anyone, really. Your voice — esp if it could be aggregated with many others — could nudge NGS in a new, and better, direction.

      Thanks for stopping by… and for your comments.

  • Keith Gardner

    As I’ve posted elsewhere along the line tonight, I was brought to this site by following a thread after doing a search on whether or not the NGS was still a not-for-profit organization. I have just been watching the Nat Geo Channel on cable TV and was so astoundingly shocked and disappointed by the lack of rigor and quality editing – but the presence of a lot of polish – that I knew something major had changed. I find now that it’s essentially John Fahey as CEO. That’s the change. Why NGS would bring in someone like that to lead the Society is way beyond my comprehension. It’s not about profit, it’s not about eyeballs on online ads, it’s not about viewership numbers. Or is it? I guess it is, now. But it never was. Yes, I too had the shelves of every issue of NG Magazine during my youth. I would remember articles or pictures long after, and would go back to them from time to time. It is utterly not that same organization now. 

    At the same time that Hewlett Packard is deciding to jettison its PC-making business, by which it is largely known to the world, to focus on business software, it makes me wonder just what kind of hubris it takes to lead a large and reputable organization to ruin, and what kind of perspective-less people are sitting on the boards of these organizations. 

    I shouldn’t say perspective-less; it’s just that it’s never been so nakedly obvious that the perspective is all about the bottom line, the dollars and cents. For a commercial enterprise, it’s one thing, and only history will tell us whether I’m right or Mr. Apotheker is right about the best course for HP. But for an educational and inspirational organization like what NGS used to be, to change it in the ways that it’s being changed are just such a shock to the system that the only recourse is to distance one’s self from them entirely. 

  • Keith Gardner

    After having posted the above comment, I went on to find out that the Nat Geo Channel is majority owned – 71%, that is – by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. That single piece of information explains everything that wasn’t already explained by John Fahey being at the helm of NGS.

    So there really are no mysteries in the world; you just have to do your fact-finding, and connect the dots. When you get to the bottom of it, it’s just the Wizard of Oz, manipulating the levers and dials. I deeply miss the time of my youth when I did not know this.

    • http://societymatters.org Alan Mairson

      Don’t despair, Keith. Instead, think of Dorothy: She destroyed the Wicked Witch… exposed the Wizard… and made it home to Kansas. :-)

      The story isn’t over yet. …

  • Therese

    Keith: Both your posts are well put.

    Imagine working at NG when it wasn’t all about the bottom line—money. There was a time when, not only the employees but the management (from the mid-level all the way up to the CEO and BOD), really cared about the product. Now, divisional budgets are slashed to meet the bottom line, and bonuses and perks for those in many management positions. Quality is not what it used to be, no matter what media hype you hear. Smoke and mirrors, smoke and mirrors. The fact that NG Channel’s major owner is Rupert Murdoch says it all.

    • http://societymatters.org Alan Mairson

      Yes, the Murdoch relationship says a lot — but I hope it doesn’t say it all. There’s still the other half of NGS, which isn’t in Murdoch’s grasp… not yet, anyway.

      But I’d say to you, Therese, what I said to Keith: What’s the option? If you were John Fahey, what would you do to address the serious challenges that face NGS?

      • Therese

        My response is very general and one can take it for what it is worth: ideology of the Society has to change.

        • http://societymatters.org Alan Mairson

          On this you’ll get no argument from me!

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