If only he cared more about cheetahs

Chen Guangcheng at Oslo Freedom Forum

Meanwhile, at our Society:
Chris Johns & Terry Adamson shake hands with our new publishing partners in the People's Republic of China (2007).

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

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)

More than 20 years ago in National Geographic magazine
(long before any local language editions were launched):


  • As much as I love the tradition and record of National Geographic, let’s be frank in admitting that its masters, the president and board, have always been members of the wealthy conservative power structure. For Bell and GHG, this was not even a consideration but accepted as natural law, something like social Darwinism. Before 1980 there was simply no question of Geographic taking a political stance contrary to a current administration or, in large part, to any foreign administration. Making nice to the often brutal power of the Chinese political regime is a continuation of the model. What Society Matters most often brings up, however, is the Society’s changing responsibilities in a changing cultural and natural environment. It’s no longer relevant or ethical to ignore politics. We know too much, we’ve seen too much, we’re no longer innocents. NGS has always encouraged us to reach beyond our backyards to distant worlds and different cultures, and its message has always been that our horizons are short, larger things lie beyond them. In an interconnected and interactive environment under pressure from emotionless power and rampant greed, the Society’s witness to farther horizons MUST embrace ideas as well as places, and the explication of places can’t be separated from humanitarian ideals. NGS has always been the feathers at the back of the arrow, trailing in apprehension of cultural movements. Perhaps – and I’m not sure this is so – it’s time for NGS as an example of journalism and exploration to join a fight against corporate and totalitarian bullies.

    • I mostly agree with you, Jan. But didn’t NGS have a staunchly anti-communist position for decades? We refused to publish stories about the Soviet Union… we gave the FBI office space in the 16th St building so they could spy on the Soviet embassy across the street… in the 1930s, we embraced the European fascists and their race-based theories — that’s all part of the Society’s history, and it’s all very political. After Pearl Harbor, NGS woke up. And if you read the Magazine’s post-war European coverage, you’ll find stories that effectively say: Boy, did we blow it — but now we’re gonna get this right.

      Those memories fade, of course, and in subsequent years there were plenty of instances of NGM overlooking all sorts of horrors and despotic regimes. Yet you still got the sense the Magazine had some core values. Special issues of NGM were reserved for countries that shared our basic worldview — the Australians and the French both were so honored on their respective bicentennials, and rightly so. I don’t recall seeing any special anniversary issue for, say, China… until 2008, by which time everything at NGS had changed.

      I’m not necessarily arguing for a full frontal assault on corporate and totalitarian bullies (though I’m open to the idea). Rather, I believe we need to be clear about what our values are, and not be afraid to say them out loud to the world.

      Before he died, historian Stephen Ambrose was a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. “I am an unabashed triumphalist,” he once said. “I believe this is the best and greatest country that ever was.”

      Today, he’s been replaced as an Explorer-in-Residence by NGM cover boy James Cameron, who politically is an unabashed nightmare.

      We can do so much better than this.

      • Jan Adkins


        Yes, the Geographic was anti-Communist when the U.S. power structure was anti-Communist. It was pro-Facist when the Hill was largely pro-Facist, when Hitler was a darling to business interests as a “modern man” and Mussolini was an Italian hero who “made the trains run on time.”

        Pearl Harbor and World War II produced an ideological upheaval. The Society followed the twists and turns of Washington opinions without deviation: it was anti-Stalin during the non-aggression pact, pro-Stalin during lend-lease, and anti-Stalin as the Cold War ramped up.

        The Society’s board has always been conservative and pro status quo. It has followed the Old Money line of ideology as it shifted back and forth, which isn’t surprising given the consistent Old Money makeup of the board. The only deviation from the Agenda of the Masters has been the Society’s dedication to earth and climate sciences, energy concerns, and pollution alarms. The board has been powerless to steer Society editorial policy away from corporate interests in these matters because it had established itself firmly as an earth-science based voice. The Society spoke for the natural world, for clean oceans and rivers, against acid rain. The National Geographic Society became green by default, and we’ve done good work for the Earth.

        The question we should be posing presently: “What course is the Board of Directors of the National Geographic Society – not the magazine or the channel – willing to take over the next critical decades?” You’re right, Alan, it’s time for the few men who direct the policies of the Society to be honest and clear about their values. Will they follow the money? Or will they follow their own heritage and the voice the Society has wrought? In what does the Board believe? Where is the Society headed? What principles will guide it? It’s come-to-Jesus time for the people who hold in their hands one of the most powerful journalistic voices ever heard.

        They’re predominately conservatives and without a need to express principles they might sludge along the corporate line wherever it leads. We sting John Fahey in our role as a gad-fly but we know he has enormous hopes for the Society. The Board is not composed of evil people but of proud members of an old campaign to increase geographic knowledge. Standing up to embrace living principles might be a new beginning for the Society and even for journalism. Something remarkable is possible, and a fresh breeze from the Board Room – of all places – might be gloriously refreshing.

        • Jan,

          Again, I agree with you… mostly.

          One point of disagreement: “The National Geographic Society became green by default, and we’ve done good work for the Earth.” It wasn’t by default; rather, it was a very conscious decision by the editors in the late ’70s, and certainly by the 1980s. As for the “good work,” to a degree, I guess. Listen now to most enviros, though, especially those concerned about climate change, and you get the sense that the Greens and their fellow travelers (including NGS) have failed thus far. Question is: What’s next?

          To me, what’s next is to do something relatively simple and attainable — something you hint at above: engage the NGS Board of Trustees. Two dozen people who controls the fate of one Society. See if they might open up… speak up… share their thoughts and visions… explain how their values and strategic decisions will create a Society you’d be proud to join and support.

          In other words: We, as a Society, should embody the ideas and values that we hope will be embraced by the broader society.

          Changing climate policy or the saving Big Cats or cleaning up The Oceans is a huge task. It’s borderline crazy to think that one organization can actually accomplish anything substantive in these areas. Which is why I find it amusing when people tell me that Society Matters is tilting at windmills. Sure, I can’t do it alone — but the prospect of getting the NGS Board to explain themselves — or getting John Fahey to sit down for a long, on-the-record video interview — well, that kind of simple transparency seems like a goal that’s within our grasp.

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