Jan Adkins is an illustrator, storyteller, explainer, sailor, chef, tennis player, and the main man at Jan Adkins Studio. He formerly served as the associate art director for National Geographic magazine. (Jan is also a member of our advisory board.)
Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor [who became the first full-time editor of National Geographic magazine in 1899, and who served as the Society’s helmsman for more than 50 years] was a man of his time, upright and honorable as far as the contemporary codes extended. One of his defined editorial principles was part of that “gentlemen’s” time: our coverage of distant places and cultures and nations was to focus strictly on positive aspects, never on criticism of evils, failures or abuses.
This was before World War I. His world was still a time of monarchs and empire. This was before we discovered that horror was not some distant threat and that monsters looked very much like normal folks. GHG’s view was simpler and less scary from his armchair than the world we see from our armchair. We’ve seen Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Joe McCarthy. We’ve seen the truth of Goya’s awful dictum: “The dream of reason produces monsters.” We’ve even seen the evil in ourselves.
GHG could, with a clear conscience, assume that reason among nations would prevail, that good guys directed the great powers, and that there was no reason to insult anyone. Why rock the boat and be seen as a potential critic? Why limit our scope?
The leader of a modern Society honestly dedicated to exploration and to the truth can’t afford GHG’s “make nice” focus. In the flogging sense, “the cat is out of the bag:” the lash and injustice of some regimes and situations is now part of the open world. Realpolitik insists that even the good guys get nasty, sometimes. Our charter is to see the real world and report the truth. Did GHG lie? Not by the standards of his polite and hopeful time; he was a conservative, logical gentleman and certainly not a firebrand.
In the podcast, Alan makes an hypothetical reply, what he thinks the Society’s board might say to Dan Pollatta’s encouragement to “live by your truth.” It’s a reply that parrots GHG’s make-nice philosophy. It’s also the boardroom corporate approach: power creates it’s own morality.
How many of us feel that GHG would be disappointed in us if we DIDN’T change our charter and our approach? He was a journalist, a seeker who would have doped out the modern world with sharp logical tools. My sense is that GHG would quickly become less rosy and more inquisitive of motives.
The Society was cobbled together at the Cosmos Club by a group of extraordinary and influential gentlemen. Alas, we’re no longer a nation run by gentlemen. Far from it: our American culture is defined and controlled by lawyers. The “make nice” principle still applies but for more sinister reasons. The basic assumption of adversarial law is that a compromise is the answer to opposing views; I give a little, you give a little, we both settle. Lawyers carefully exclude moral feelings from negotiation. Law and politics are “the arts of the possible.”
For a journalist this is a violation of ethics. You don’t write a story that assumes both sides are wrong with some neutral, “right” space between their views. A reporter tries to determine what is right, what is the truth, what are the facts. As professional observers and chroniclers we aren’t permitted to compromise; we’re obligated to take a side, the side of truth.
What’s devilish and disturbing about the attitude of the National Geographic Channel is the insistence that we can’t “sell a product” with the truth. NGC asserts that its product isn’t marketable unless we jigger the facts and pump up the volume, script “candid” conversations, create situations of our own melodramatic design and casually slander subjects without regard to their quaint moral structures. This is admission of failure before the fact, and it’s a cynical judgment of the viewing public as mindless sheep.
Toward the end of Bill Garrett’s tenure as editor in chief, The National Geographic Magazine began to feature articles that dealt with ticklish political subjects like heritage theft, genocide, cultural abuses, widespread abuse of children and women. Bill knew it was time for a bolder, more investigative mandate. Some regimes began to view us with suspicion. About time. I like to think GHG would have applauded the change. GHG’s grandson disagreed and the Society underwent a painful paroxysm of broken trust and ruthless pruning. The magazine returned to bland “travel” views avoiding controversy.
Truth is not always safe or comfortable. No doubt about it: the truth is dangerous stuff. It always demands risk. Boardrooms hate risk.
The Society could hide behind its credentials for years to come before its readers (no longer “members”) discover that the National Geographic Society is little more than a hired façade for pretty “content,” no longer a society of risk, exploration and inquiry. Where is the Society now? It’s time to review our principles and our profession, and to decide if the truth is marketable.