Enough with Pharaoh

Anti-Mubarak protest in Cairo (via AP)

We love this photo because it turns that famous George Santayana quote on its head:

Those who learn from history are blessed to not repeat it.

Egyptians are learning. They have intimate knowledge of Pharaohs, past and present, and they’ve had enough. The huddled masses in Cairo are yearning to breathe free.

What’s tragic is that National Geographic — which once celebrated democracy and human rights — now offers so little sustenance for the difficult journey ahead. Consider…

National Geographic keeps repeating this story
over & over again:

(At NGS, there’s never enough Pharaoh.)

By contrast,
National Geographic once told stories that celebrated democracy,
such as…

"Our Land Through Lincoln's Eyes," by Carolyn Bennett Patterson, National Geographic, February 1960

… but not anymore.

Evidently, Editor Chris Johns considers such subjects old-fashioned. Or parochial.
Or bad for business: Some of our international partners
don’t like it when we bring up democracy.
So, we don’t.

What about our Society’s Explorers-in-Residence?
Do any of them champion freedom and democracy?

National Geographic Society's Explorers-in-Residence

Stephen Ambrose

The only person in this group who enthusiastically celebrated The Democracy Story is historian Stephen Ambrose (above, bottom right; and, at right), who wrote biographies of U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, as well as the critically acclaimed Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Ambrose won the George Marshall Award, the Teddy Roosevelt Award, the Department of the Army Award for Distinguished Public Service, the Abraham Lincoln Literary Award, the Will Rogers Memorial Award, the Bob Hope Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, and the National Humanities Award. The U.S. Department of Defense awarded Ambrose their Medal for Distinguished Public Service. According to National Geographic:

It was Ambrose’s devotion to telling the stories of ordinary soldiers of World War II that defines his passion for history and his legacy. “I was ten years old when the war ended,” he was quoted as saying. “I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarism. I still think so.”

Stephen Ambrose died in 2002. Since then, the National Geographic Society has

• launched 12 new local language editions of National Geographic magazine, including versions in Arabic, Russian, and Chinese;
• changed its mission statement, which now reads: To inspire people to care about the planet;
failed to appoint a new Explorer-in-Residence who might share Mr. Ambrose’s passion for American history and Western values.

Three questions for you, John Fahey:

1. Why don’t we have an Explorer-in-Residence who can recognize barbarism and call it by its proper name (as did Mr. Ambrose)?

2. Who at our Society will speak up to support the heroes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square who are struggling to escape the iron grip of Pharaoh? (Our Society’s man in Egypt — Explorer-in-Residence Zahi Hawassjust joined President Mubarak’s new cabinet, so we don’t expect to hear a peep out of him.)

3. Why are you unwilling to answer our questions?

John rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
But we’re asking for one — partly to hear his answers to these questions —
and you can help by clicking “Recommend,” below.

Don’t have a Facebook account? Or prefer not to show your face? That’s okay.
Just email me — alan [at] societymatters [dot] org — and
I’ll raise our Anonymous But Curious tally by one.
(It’s under the Facebook widget in the right sidebar.)

  • Jay

    steven ambrose was a racist ass. he told stories of the west that made it sound like there were no native american people here when lewis and clark arrived. i witnessed his racist comments. national geographic was and is run by colonizers. it’s a hostile work environment and the journalism is only so-so.

    • Hi Jay, I never met Stephen Ambrose, and I only know the general outline of his career and professional interests, so I’m afraid I can’t shed any light on what sort of guy he really was.

      My only point was that NGS once was happy to hand the microphone to someone who believed the United States and the West have something of value to offer the world. Which means when I see a protester holding up a sign with Mubarak as Pharaoh, and the word “Enough” — well, I could imagine Ambrose saying “Damn straight”… whereas Zahi Hawass, by joining Mubarak’s cabinet, seems complicit.

      Is it too much to ask for someone at NGS to stand up & say something that makes it clear that we, as a society & Society, have a dog in this fight? That we care about the outcome? That a real democracy is better than an autocracy?

      There’s an earthquake underway in the Middle East, and all I’m seeing at nationalgeographic.com is pretty landscape pictures.

  • j. jr.

    forgive me, but you seem to smart to be this…dumb. really. why do you persist? you can’t be a wee bit racist and stand up for democracy. and as you pointed out earlier, and i keep telling you it all about rich white men. the board is not now nor has it ever been interested in representing everyone, in the pages of The Magazine or on television, or in the hallways. i met and spent time with Stephen and was offended by watching him some of his presentations and hearing him use offensive racial terms. he was greedy. ng is a legacy brand struggling to find it’s identity in the twentieth century. it’s rife with managerial dysfunction. a friend met a former colleague recently who told her that ‘national geographic’ maintained a hostile work environment. let’s face it…. that’s the problem. the subscribers mandate that we cover egypt all the time, not the editors. it’s all about money now, or the lack of it. ‘monetize’ is the reality of this tune. even in mission programs, now. they are trying to ‘monetize’ everything, too. so there is bigger fish to fry then your perception of what is ‘your society.’ it will never matter to them. ever. i asked about how much they are making because so many people are losing their jobs, and just two weeks ago john fahey told all of us that the senior managers were still getting bonuses. they don’t care what any of us think… they just want to get paid.

    • You’re forgiven. 🙂 And I persist because it’s fun. And endlessly interesting. Watching Zahi Hawass accept Mubarak’s offer of a cabinet position in the middle of this crisis in Egypt is… well, it’s breathtaking. Why did Zahi double down on a dictator who is loathed by most Egyptian citizens? To understand, maybe you have to think like Pharaoh: To hell with what the people have to say.

      And Zahi’s nasty ramblings about Palestinian Jews? Again, beyond belief — as is NG’s lack of a response. Why do Juan Williams & Rick Sanchez get fired for comments that are tame compared to the blarf that Zahi has been blurting? Only John Fahey knows for sure — and he’s not talking.

      Short answer is: I love a good story, and when time permits, I narrate bits of this one, especially since no one else is (yet).

      Re: Stephen Ambrose — I don’t have much to add to what I said earlier, though your encounters with him sound awful.

      Re: monetizing — the income has to come from somewhere, right? What is the revenue stream that you think will keep the organization going?

      Re: bonuses — you understand as well as I do that the management challenge is to cut costs, increase efficiency & revenue. If, as a manager, you can whack 20 percent of your staff, and still find a way to get the work done — well, a big bonus for you. Managers are not paid to take pictures or write or edit stories or design pages or produce the product; they’re paid to keep the ship moving forward in the most cost-effective way possible.

      What’s frightening is you can see what NGS is doing, and smell the panic — the realization that the ship has a huge hole in the hull, and is taking on water at a dangerous clip, but the lights are still on, and the dinner buffet is still open. “All is well,” says the captain, calmly. But the crew is looking around, nervous, because more bodies will no doubt be tossed overboard so the ship will stay afloat. The load will be lightened. The sharks will be fed.

      That said, I still believe the ship can be saved, and should be saved — despite all the Society’s flaws, imperfections, and less-than-perfect Explorers-in-Residence. NGS could be an organization that would make you proud — I’m sure of it — but not when Zahi is spouting hateful nonsense… when Ultimate Factories is called a TV show… when the company is slowly getting drawn into the News Corp orbit…. when no one is able to articulate why the word Society matters…. and when the CEO refuses to speak to me, to journalists, or to anyone, really.

      Keep the faith, J. And thanks for calling ’em as you see ’em — even if what you see is me being an idiot. 🙂

      Until next time….

  • Therese

    Bonuses: I equate the ethics and morals of the executives at NGS with those on Wall Street. Granted, NGS execs didn’t ruin the economy but they, as those on Wall Street, feel that they are due bonuses, perks, and big salaries. For NGS execs to get bonuses while laying off employees is pathetic. I have friends who were laid off from NGS over a year ago and they are still looking for permanent full-time employment. But, hey, as long as JF and others are getting their fancy salaries, well, that is all they care about.

    Management’s goal to cut costs, and to increase efficiency and revenue is code for “outsourcing.” Several divisions outsource, even divisions you wouldn’t expect. Example, the Cartographic Division outsources much of their work. The division that is known worldwide for their in-house mapping excellence is outsourcing work. All the execs care about is making money for themselves. They are cheating the members, the public at large, its own employees, and ruining the good NGS name.

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