On history, journalism, and the future of our Society

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.) 

Jan Adkins

Jan Adkins

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.

  • Hi Jan,

    Thanks for sharing your ideas “above the fold.” It’s where they belong.

    It should come as no surprise that I agree with much of what you write. Your characterization of the early years seems consistent with what Bob Poole described in his book. The Garrett Era as a time with a bit more political grittiness also seems consistent with the stories I’ve heard and the back issues I’ve read. But there are a few places where you & I diverge. Let me mention two of them…

    First, I’m not convinced GHG would have backed Bill Garrett’s direction. I don’t think he would have applauded the transformation of the official journal of the Society into the official journalism of the Society. GHG believed that membership mattered, and that what set our Magazine apart was (arguably) a set of values more than world-class reportage.

    As many people have pointed out, the writing in the Magazine was pretty ho-hum in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s — yet it didn’t matter. The Society grew like crazy. And the photography was unusual not for its news value but for its exoticism. The franchise wasn’t grittiness, or honesty, or its investigative insights; it was the broader story it told about The West meeting The World. It was about people, not trees. It was about seeing yourself as a “participant observer” — a journalistic insight that was decades ahead of its time. With our digital cameras and websites and Tumblrs and Twitter feeds, we’re all participant observers now. … That first-person approach was genius then, and it’s genius now. (Which is just one reason why we must stop with the laughable conceit on very public display here: http://societymatters.org/2010/02/06/objective-nonsense-part-1/

    Second, while I agree that “the truth is not always safe or comfortable” and that journalists ought to pursue it, I also believe the truth is a tricky thing. You can gather a motherlode of facts, and have Research vet the whole shebang, but it’s still hard to stand up and say: “I found the Truth. ” However, we can stand up and say: “This is what I gathered while on assignment. Here’s the picture I have of the world. But you seem to come up with some very different conclusions — crazy, even. How in the world did you get there?”

    For many years, I’ve dreamed that John Fahey — or anyone with some vision – would stand up in the pages of NGM and say something like this to our members – and our prospective members:

    For more than a century, we’ve traveled to remote corners of the world and brought back the truth as we understood it. But now virtually everyone, in every corner of the world, has the capacity to report on that reality themselves. We don’t have to go there for you to see what’s happening. And so, our Society will remake itself. Our Magazine will stand not as The Final Word on what’s happening in [insert place name here]. Instead, we’ll let the Magazine serve as an example, as Best Practices in photojournalism. But our main goal now is to empower you, our members, to join us in this great adventure. If you see yourself as part of The West… if you value freedom and open societies and democracy and human rights, and if you grasp the value of a free press and what it can do to create a better community, a better society, a better environment, a better planet… well, then you’re on our team. You’re part of our club. Join the adventure!

    The question for me is not “is the truth marketable” as much as “is the pursuit of truth marketable”? If so, let’s encourage our members not to watch us pursuing it, but to pursue it themselves.

    Put more simply, I want John Fahey to take the speech he gave at the 2012 First Amendment Awards dinner — http://societymatters.org/2012/10/20/yu-jie-john-fahey-frontiers-we-must-protect-china/ — and make it the cornerstone of everything the Society does from now on.

    We’re all journalists now. So let’s stop treating people as if they were born to stare at cheetah pictures. And we should definitely stop encouraging people to “stay on the couch!” http://societymatters.org/2012/01/29/on-the-couch/

    Doesn’t that tweet from the Channel just make you cringe? And yet that, in a nutshell, is our current business model.

    We can do so much better than this.

  • Roger Baumgarten


    Thoughtful post overall, and thoughtful reply from Alan–both convey your knowledge of, and passion for, the work of NGS/NGM. However, I nearly stopped reading by the end of the 2nd graph. Whatever one thinks of Senator Joe McCarthy, your placement of him in the same moral bucket as mass-murdering dictators Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot is a gross distortion of the “truth” you seek.

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.