Objective Nonsense (part 26)

Remember Chris Johns’ claim that National Geographic has “no agenda”? It was part of an Editor’s Note in which Chris insisted that in “a world 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.”

Why would Chris make a claim which is demonstrably false? Here’s one theory: National Geographic once relied on members, not advertisers, for support. But now, with so many members leaving the Society, Chris is scrambling to shore up the “deal… struck between advertisers, publishers, and journalists”:

Joshua Benton

… The idea that journalists should be impartial in reporting news is a relatively recent one. “A lot of newspaper people treat it as one true religion, when it’s an artifact of a certain set of economic and historical circumstances,” says Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab. America’s Founding Fathers nurtured a vibrant, fiercely partisan press with no licensing of newspapers or policing of content. During the 19th century newspapers gradually adopted a more objective stance, for several reasons. By appealing to a wider audience, they were able to increase their circulation and hence their advertising revenue. Consolidation, and the emergence of local newspaper monopolies, also promoted impartiality. “When you are the only paper in town, you can’t risk pissing off liberals by being too conservative, or vice versa,” says Mr Benton.

With the professionalisation of journalism in the early 20th century came a more detached style of reporting. In effect, a deal was struck between advertisers, publishers and journalists, says New York University’s Jay Rosen. Journalists agreed not to alienate anyone so that advertisers could aim their messages at everyone. That way the publishers got a broader market and the journalists got steady jobs but gave up their voices.

Read the whole thing here.

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“Gave up their voices”? Yes, indeed.

 The Way We Were
(when membership mattered most):

NGM, May 1953

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The Way We Are
(as publishers chase “a broader market”):

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

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