Objective Nonsense (part 1)

Fox News has a tagline that’s been a source of amusement for years: We Report, You Decide.

It’s funny because it’s obviously not true. Fox is conservative, backs Republicans, taunts Democrats, and loves poking a stick in the eye of what Roger Ailes & Co. consider to be the liberal media establishment.

Chris Johns

Given the goofiness of Fox’s (tongue-in-cheek) claim to objectivity, we were disappointed to see Chris Johns playing the same game. In his Editor’s Note this month, Chris talks up the Magazine’s objectivity and “unbiased presentation of the facts,” but he also unwittingly spells out why the Magazine he still leads continues its gut-wrenching nosedive. Here’s Chris, describing a picture review session at headquarters:

The room darkens, and Stephanie Sinclair’s photographs flash on the screen. For months she has been photographing members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the FLDS. Its members are known to most of us because they believe in polygamy, but Stephanie’s photographs tell a deeper, broader story. …

Stephanie has no agenda. She does not judge. There is nothing superficial or glib about her work. Her photographs are honest. They reflect her insatiable curiosity. They also reflect her compassion and sense of responsibility. … Stephanie understands that others may want to pass judgment, but that is not her role. She photographs what she sees and provides the opportunity for insight. The rest is up to the reader.

In a world full of shrill voices and agendas, we at National Geographic are committed to an unbiased presentation of facts. … It’s what we’ve been doing for more than 120 years.

This “unbiased” stuff is nonsense, of course. National Geographic has always had a bias — a predisposition either for or against something. And at the height of its popularity and profitability, NGM shared those biases, openly and honestly, including this one:

July 1943: NGM’s first cover photo

Bias is why NGS gave maps to Eisenhower to help him fight the Nazis.

Bias is why this guy once loved the Magazine, but now hates it.

Bias once meant fewer National Geographic stories about The Planet, and more about its nations and people (e.g., country stories like Romania: Maverick on a Tightrope, November 1975).

Bias meant that NGM refused for many years to cover the Soviet Union. (NGM editors tended to be staunch anti-communists.)

Bias is why our Society once let FBI agents use our office space to spy on the Soviet Embassy, just across 16th Street from NGS headquarters. (For more details, see Explorers House: National Geographic and the World It Made, by Robert M. Poole.)

Ha Jin

Bias — for democracy, for Western civilization, for human rights and free speech — is why we’re still waiting for Chris Johns to explain why he killed Ha Jin’s Censorship in China story just weeks before NGS executives flew to the People’s Republic of China to celebrate a new publishing partnership.

Omar Bongo, Gabon's former President

Omar Bongo, Gabon’s former President-for-Life

Bias — in its new, Green form at our Society — is why NGM celebrated its role in creating a new network of national parks in Gabon. Our political partner in this painfully undemocratic initiative was El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, then Gabon’s President-for-Life. (See our earlier post: Befriending Thugs Who Love the Planet.)

Bias is why NGM once published so many stories in the first person rather than the third person. Our writers weren’t flies on the wall, reporting dispassionately from a distance; they became involved in their own stories, and happily assumed a speaking part. This engagement was one of the charms of Geographic narratives — and one of the Society’s secrets to success: We’re not watching life from a distance, as if it were a TV show; instead, we’re living this adventure from the inside — and so are you.

In their book Reading National Geographic , Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins sketch…

…  a complex portrait of an institution and its role in promoting a kind of conservative humanism that acknowledges universal values and celebrates diversity while it allows readers to relegate non-Western peoples to an earlier stage of progress. We see the magazine and the Society as a key middlebrow arbiter of taste, wealth, and power in America, and we get a telling glimpse into middle-class American culture and all the wishes, assumptions, and fears it brings to bear on our armchair explorations of the world.

You may or may not approve of that editorial approach, but this much we can all agree upon: It certainly isn’t unbiased.

So when Chris Johns claims that the Magazine has had “no agenda” for 120 years, and that he is sustaining a long tradition of an “unbiased presentation of the facts”  — well, he’s wrong. It’s blarf. The facts don’t support his claim. And he must know all this… or he should.

Question is: Why does he make such demonstrably false assertions in such a public way? It makes our Society seem embarrassingly out of touch with the world — and distressingly ignorant of its own history.

We can do so much better than this.

Up next: Why “transparency is the new objectivity.”

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.