Objective Nonsense (part 20)

Chris Johns

“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.”

NGM Editor Chris Johns

Uhh… no, Chris, not really. In fact, you’re not even close:

“Military brass were also well represented [during World War II] on the National Geographic Society’s board of trustees, among them Gen. John J. Pershing, Maj. Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold, and Rear Adm. L. O. Colbert. As in National Geographic’s early days, the organization began to look less like a journalistic enterprise than an extension of the government.”

— from Explorers House: National Geographic and the World It Made, by Robert M. Poole (p. 184)

[NGM Editor Melville Grosvernor’s] eagerness, combined with his strong sense of patriotism, also led him to cooperate with the U.S. intelligence services, just as Time and other publishers did during the Cold War. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation approached on a matter of national security in the 1960s, Melville found it difficult to say no, and the FBI was soon installed in a National Geographic office affording an unobstructed view, through a gap in the magnolias, of the Soviet embassy a few hundred feet down Sixteenth Street.” (Explorers House, p. 216)

“[Melville] loaned Barry C. Bishop, a member of National Geographic’s foreign editorial staff, to the CIA for an extended spy mission in Asia while continuing to list Bishop on the magazine’s masthead. Under Melville and his successors, the organization also made its personnel available for debriefings when they returned from foreign assignments, on which they collected maps, census reports, and other useful data. They shared such information with intelligence experts; in turn, National Geographic got access to material, especially cartographic data, not generally available to the public. These entanglements, while unacceptable by today’s standards of journalism, continued the cozy arrangements the National Geographic Society had maintained with the government since its founding. As his predecessors had done, Melville invited government officials onto the board of trustees, published them regularly in the magazine, and generally treated the Society as a friendly extension of the government.” (Explorers House, p. 217)

Chris Johns knows this history. Chris Johns has undoubtedly read this book. And the book repeatedly says: National Geographic had an agenda. National Geographic was biased. National Geographic was “a friendly extension of the United States government.” And National Geographic has been that way for most of its 123-year history.

Why, then, does Chris Johns say otherwise? Could it be partly because telling the world you’re “unbiased” and have “no agenda” is what’s required when you desperately want to make new friends in countries where the government has a bias and an (authoritarian) agenda of its own?

NGM Editor Chris Johns & EVP Terry Adamson celebrate National Geographic's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)

Chris & Terry clink glasses with our new partners in the PRC.

Chris & Terry stand tall with our new partners in the PRC.

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≡  photos via NGM-China

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