Why John Fahey’s decision to do business in China was a huge mistake for the National Geographic Society

Banned in China: Bloomberg and New York Times say they had no choice


Chris Johns & Terry Adamson stand tall with our new publishing partners in the People$rsquo;s Republic of China (2007).

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson stand tall with our new publishing partners in the People’s Republic of China (2007).

Chris & Terry shake hands with our new partners.

Chris & Terry shake hands with our new partners.

Chris Johns Terry Adamson China National Geographic Liu Xiaobo

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

  • I suppose NGS has lied before in the time-honored tradition of overlooking vile regimes and oppressed peoples. We’ve pictured some sinkholes of political depravity as happy and quaint – ah, how splendid the natives look in their native dress, even the ones who are bleeding. But that was then, this is a more critical, more crucial Now.

    Our role – Society Matters – is preservationist. We’re trying to retain the Society’s tainted reputation and it’s tattered brand. I believe we’re also using this particular pulpit to advocate clear, honest journalism. Submitting to government censorship as a necessity during wartime or even under bodily threat is conceivable. Leaping at the chance of being censored in order to open a money conduit is simply amoral, a prime example of corporate greed-over-ethics complicity, and no cause for celebration. Gather ye greenbacks while ye may.

    • DClover

      Agreed Jan. Unfortunately, the business philosophy at NG is: [1] money, money, money; and [2] use the great NG name to make money, money, money.

      • DClover – Then again, the place will shut down without money. The core question is whether or not John Fahey can dream up a new revenue model that doesn’t rely on trash from the Channel or kowtowing to the censors in the People’s Republic of China. And so far, I’m not seeing it.

    • Jan –

      I keep returning to National Geographic’s post-World War II coverage. The war brought a certain clarity that some ideological sinkholes should be identified as such. Soon after we kissed up to Hitler & Mussolini in the Magazine in the late 1930s, we woke up. Too bad it took Pearl Harbor & the invasion of Poland to sound the alarm.

      As for Society Matters being “preservationist” — yes, in the sense you mention: to retain the Brand’s tattered reputation. But I don’t long to return to the editorial approach of the ’70s or ’80s, either. I think there’s another approach that publicly acknowledges who and what we are as a Society — and a society — and builds a business around that.

  • Bob

    Let’s be honest – this site is far from true journalism. It is a collection of pot shots at the Society, most without any real reporting or fact-gathering involved. National Geographic may have real issues to face but simply criticizing virtually every move made is in no way constructive or journalistic.

    • Bob,

      I don’t think of this as a “collection of potshots.” That makes my critique seem far too random. The fact is there is a collection of strategic moves that John Fahey has made in the past 15 years which I believe are fatally flawed. Chief among them: the transformation of National Geographic into International Geographic, and the gymnastics that we’ve had to perform to get into markets like China & Saudi Arabia. I make this point repeatedly, and did so again here because two journalism heavyweights — Bill Keller and Norman Pearlstine — both said the China tradeoff was not worth making. I agree. As they say, self-censorship destroys your credibility and your Brand. I’d love to hear what John Fahey & Chris Johns would say in response… but as you know, they’re not talking.

      I don’t criticize “virtually every move made” by NGS. The Society does lots of things that are lovely: the kids’ magazine, books, photo workshops, and so forth. No big complaints there. But what the Channel does & what Chris Johns says — that deserves all the criticism I can find time to deliver.

      If you think I’ve made any factual errors, or have failed to report something essential, please tell me. I’m listening….

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