Dear John: Please help avert a potential disaster

To: John Fahey, NGS CEO
Re: National Geographic’s scheduled documentary on the Japanese mafia

When people risk their lives to help
the National Geographic Society,
should our Society help them in return?

We ask because National Geographic Television is scheduled to release a new documentary about the Yakuza (aka the Japanese mafia). Unfortunately, the current version, titled Gangland Tokyo, might endanger the lives of people who helped make the film possible.

That warning comes from Jake Adelstein, who was hired by National Geographic Television (NGT) as an expert consultant for the film, but who recently resigned from the project in protest. Based on Mr. Adelstein’s thumbnail bio, he knows about what he speaks: Adelstein was the first American to be hired by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, and is the only American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club. He’s also the author of Tokyo Vice (right), which Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, called “a deeply thought-provoking book: equal parts cultural exposé, true crime, and hard-boiled noir.”

What is the potential danger of NGT’s current version of Gangland Tokyo? Here’s Mr. Adelstein:

I have been working as a consultant on a National Geographic Television documentary on the yakuza since the summer of last year. I resigned on February 24th. I also asked that my name be removed from the program, Gangland Tokyo.

I did this for two reasons. I was not given full access to the materials that would allow me to verify the factual accuracy of the program and thus unable to do my job properly. There are also issues of the program being seen as yarase (やらせ).  Since I can’t verify the factual accuracy, taking the money and continuing would be perfidious. Also, after seeing a rough cut of the program, I now have serious concerns about the safety of all Americans and Japanese sources, friends, and the staff of National Geographic Channel Japan who are involved with this program. There is a chance that the yakuza that have been betrayed by NGT will use violence against those residing in Japan to express their anger. I am even concerned about the safety of the yakuza that agreed to appear in the documentary, probably under false pretenses and false promises. They will face retaliation from their superiors if the program is aired as it is now. Yakuza are people too, a small minority of them are good people in their own right, and once they cooperate with the program, they are also sources. And sources have to be protected. That is the good faith that is demanded in responsible journalism.

In response to these concerns, which Mr. Adelstein shared with the producers weeks before he resigned, National Geographic Television wrote:

“Jake, this is not a misunderstanding of the nature of journalism. This is a misunderstanding regarding your role as a consultant to the program. National Geographic never intended for you, personally, to fact check the entire program, line by line. Rather, you were hired for your expertise on the subject matter and your consultation was to assure the general accuracy of the subject in the program.” [emphasis added]


NGT to Mr. Adelstein, 1 February 2011

Problem is, the contract signed by Mr. Adelstein and NGT (below) says something very different:

“Your consultation support shall address the factual accuracy of the Program.” [emphasis added]

Contract between NGT & Jake Adelstein

NGT’s shifting of gears, and the difference between general and factual accuracy, raises several questions:

1. What  is “general accuracy”? Exactly how would someone check it?

2. How can a documentary film be “generally accurate” without being “factually accurate”?

3. The letter from NGT (top) also says: “…you only need to opine on the Program as presented in its final form.” Opine? As in “opinion”? The contract requires Mr. Adelstein, who was hired as an expert, to check the facts.

4. Why has National Geographic changed the way it describes Mr. Adelstein’s responsibilities?

What’s especially troubling is that Mr. Adelstein evidently agreed to work on this project because he trusted National Geographic:

To avoid any ambiguity, Mr. Adelstein put his money where his mouth is: He has reportedly returned his consultant’s fee of $6,000. On the memo line of his check to NGT (postdated to April), we’re told he wrote: “a clear conscience.”

But in the end, John, all of this — the contract, the correspondence, the legal interpretations, the check, the growing online buzz, and our Society’s reputation —  doesn’t matter nearly much as the lives at stake. For a host of reasons, NGT’s attempt to document the Yakuza has gone awry. Members of the Yakuza who never should have been interviewed — per Mr. Adelstein’s expert instructions — were put on camera anyway; now these people realize they’re in danger, and don’t want to appear in the film at all.

Put another way: This documentary is no longer about taking viewers inside the Yakuza. It’s no longer about exposing a criminal subculture. It’s not about them. It’s about us. It’s about our willingness to adhere to journalistic standards that have long been a hallmark of National Geographic — not because the standards boost TV ratings (or please our friends at News Corp), but because the standards bolster our Society’s reputation and they protect people’s lives.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t melodrama. The risks here are very real, according to this internal National Geographic email:

Which brings us back to the question we posed to you at the top:

When people risk their lives to help
the National Geographic Society,

should our Society help them in return?

Will you help them?

We sincerely hope you find your voice, and find a way to do the right thing.

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

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