Objective Nonsense (part 28)

“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

“Unbiased”? “For more than 120 years”? Hardly.

“Whether the identity in question is at the individual or national level, the concept of otherness, of difference, is critical in defining a distinct self. Like its popular — and for-profit — magazine compatriots [the Saturday Evening Post, and Reader’s Digest], National Geographic helped to articulate an American identity in opposition to both old Europe and primitive non-Western regions. It was an identity of civic and technological superiority but yet, a distinctively benign and friendly identity.

– from the introduction of Presenting America’s World: Strategies of Innocence in National Geographic Magazine, 1888-1045, by Tamar Y. Rothenberg

Why does National Geographic no longer have much, if any, interest in articulating an American identity — or even a Western (democratic) one? And why does Chris Johns deny — despite the overwhelming evidence — that National Geographic once championed a particular point of view?

Because if you deny that, you get to do this:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate with National Geographic’s new publishing partners in the People’s Republic of China. (2007)


  • Guest

    Really? This is a comment worth harping on?  There are plenty of issues truly worthy of examination, but this one just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Don’t cheapen commentary with cheap shots.

    • Dear Guest,

      Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry this leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But I don’t think my Objective Nonsense series is a cheap shot, nor can I think of many other issues that are more important — at least for people who care about the health & future of NGS.  

      Sure, on the surface, Chris’s “120 years” comment is just two words in one Editor’s note. But when I read it last year, my eyes went wide because (a) it’s obviously blarf, and (b) it captures something critical which has animated Society Matters from the beginning: What the National Geographic Society has become bears no relationship to what made NGS great, despite what management insists on telling you.. (If the quote were a photograph in a magazine story, you’d put it on the cover.)

      What makes the quote so interesting is not what Chris said, but why he must have said it. Just imagine Chris in Beijing, early in his tenure as Editor, trying to reassure government officials (and John Fahey) that National Geographic is not, and never has been, a political magazine:

      Chinese official: So tell us about National Geographic magazine, Mr. Johns.
      CJ: It’s all about cheetahs and global warming.
      Chinese official: What about that story you published in 1991 which documented the unpleasantness in Tianamen Square
      CJ: We’re very sorry. I promise it won’t happen again.
       Chinese official: That’s a good boy.

      Another reason Chris’s quote is such a head-slapper is that it was published in the Magazine, which means it must have gone through the fact-checking process in Research. I’d love to see the annotated copy of that Editor’s Page, and find out what sources were cited for “it’s what we’ve been doing for more than 120 years.” 

      Then again, we know the answer, don’t we? The facts don’t really matter. If a researcher had gathered the evidence and then insisted this factual error be corrected prior to publication, s/he’d probably been greeted with a comment much like yours: Is this really worth harping on? There are plenty of other issues that deserve your attention….

      To you, Guest, I’m splitting hairs. To me, Chris’s breathtaking disregard for the Society’s history warrants all the coverage I’m giving it. Because if you can see the clumsy game he’s playing — if you can see what’s changed at NGS — then you’ve taken a huge first step toward getting a handle on the problem that’s eroding the Society from within. You’d also have taken a big step towards developing a new, sustainable future for the Society. 

      To paraphrase Gil Grosvenor: If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going.

      Thanks again for writing, Guest. And next time, please feel free to drop your cloak of anonymity. If you care about the National Geographic Society, then we’re both on the same team.

  • Guest

    Thank you Alan for continuing to be out of touch.

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