“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?”
“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?
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.
But 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.
* * *
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….