Sinking to new depths

The latest cover of National Geographic 
featuring James Cameron 
(a) Photoshopped
(b) beyond depressing:

James Cameron on cover of National Geographic magazine

James Cameron, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence

James Cameron, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence

Read the whole interview here.

Hey… here’s an idea:
Why don’t we put this sad, soulless man
on the cover of the Magazine
and pretend that his values are ones
our Society — and society — should embrace?

(If James Cameron is the new face of National Geographic,
then our Society is in bigger trouble than I had imagined.)


  • Dog lover

    When I got my magazine, I was a bit disappointed to see a “celebrity” on the cover. Felt JC (not getting into his values, etc) on the cover was a PR stunt.

    • NGS has a whole stable of Explorers-in-Residence we could have trotted out for this photo op. So why James Cameron? Yes, he clearly knows how to make blockbuster movies, but is he an admirable guy? Is he the sort of person we want to hold up as a role model? Is this the face we want for the Society? I just don’t get it.

  • Joe Smith

    More evidence of how important newsstand sales have become.

    • Hey JS,
      Welcome back… and good point. It’ll be interesting to see how the June issue does on the newsstand. (People clearly enjoy James Cameron’s movies, but I’ve never sensed that people really like James Cameron.)

  • JVolkman

    James Cameron has very close ties with Fox, so it’s no surprise that he’s now NG’s new poster child for exploration. Yes, the Society is hurting quite badly.

    • I’d love to have listened in on the cover meetings.
      NG staffer: “Hey, why don’t we Photoshop James Cameron on the cover!
      Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns: “Terrific idea!”

  • anonymous

    Raise your hand if you: 1) designed or funded the construction of a sub; 2) worked to create new technologies to film and tell stories; or 3) put your life at risk to go to the deepest part of the ocean. Why wouldn’t National Geographic tell this story? Just because you don’t like the main character of the story or expedition.

    • Anon – You raise a great question. And my answer is: We should tell the James Cameron story about his voyage to the bottom fo the sea. And if there’s anything he discovered during his journey, we should share that information too. But I don’t think we should turn him into a folk hero because, in my opinion, he isn’t one. His values are not my values, and I wish they weren’t the values of the National Geographic Society.

      As I point out repeatedly on this site, NGS has celebrated all sorts of different values in its 125-year history. Portraits of the Society in 1917 vs. 1938 vs. 1970 vs. 1991 vs. 2013 — they’re all very different pictures. Celebrating a guy like James Cameron — a guy who expresses zero interest in what’s happening to filmmakers in China; a guy who willfully ignores what’s happening in China because he wants to sell a billion buckets of popcorn at Avatar 2 — is a reflection of the worst side of NGS… the side of NGS that happily turned a blind eye to autocrats, fascists, dictators, and thugs of all stripes.

      The rationale is often some combination of Chris Johns’ “we have no agenda” to the broader Fahey-esque “we’re just here to provide information to policymakers so they can make wise decisions” etc. I think Chris and John are not only being disingenuous; I think their ideas erode the foundation of our Society & our society.

      So let’s tell the James Cameron story. Let’s shine a bright light on what he does, and how he thinks — especially since his dive to the bottom of the Pacific didn’t reveal anything new. (If it did, we wouldn’t have had to Photoshop his picture on the cover.)

      But if we’re looking for heroes… if we’re looking for courageous people who can reveal something incredible about the world we live in… and if we can admit to ourselves that sometimes the blind can see more clearly than the sighted, then let’s put Chen Guangcheng on our cover. He actually has something to say — and something worth hearing — that speaks to a human adventure in which we all have a role to play.

      P.S. Why does a 58-year-old guy qualify as a “new” explorer? Hasn’t he been at this for a while now?

      • cdwidea

        Oh, look, you added video of the channel in a discussion of the magazine. How quaint. I know little about Cameron- but why is China the most important thing he has to care about.When did China become the #1 issue of Geographic? Aren’t they in the business of selling magazines? So confused when National Geographic became a political magazine.

        • Video? What video?

          Re: “why is China the most important thing [James Cameron] has to care about?” — It’s not. He doesn’t care about the fate of dissidents in China; he cares about getting his movie into theaters in Beijing. My point is not what Cameron cares about. It’s what NGS cares about, and I can’t believe Cameron is one of our guys.

          Re: “When did China become the #1 issue of Geographic?” China is a big issue for NGS, but only from a business standpoint: How can we crack that market? What sort of organization must we be to pass muster with the Party?

          As for your statement “So confused when National Geographic became a political magazine” — clearly you haven’t been following this site for very long. I’ve been making the point, repeatedly, that NGS was, during its glory days, a profoundly political magazine. See this and this and this and especially this.

          Here’s a question worth pondering: If NGS is not, and has not been, an organization with strong political biases, then why set up shop in Washington, DC, just 5 blocks from the White House?

          • cdwidea

            you’re right, my apologies – its not a video, but you have a screen shot in one of your reply that starts “Anon – You raise a great question…”- out of place and completely unnecessary.

            As for a political magazine – i know you like to twist words, but I did not say “NGS is not, and has never been, an organization with strong political biases”.. Nice try though.

            I said, when did the MAGAZINE become a political magazine. Pointing out its in the business of trying to sell magazines -Cameron on the cover part of that strategy (i agree it may not be great, but i understand the drive). I hope you have enough business savvy to understand that. Right or wrong, its clear what they are trying – either it fails, does nothing or helps with sales and you’ll see more of it (in which case one could argue its responding well to consumers). Easy to second guess now

            I understand they cover political issues today and in the past – but the magazine is ultimately a journal of the institution. I think we actually agree on how well they may be doing that – but regardless, its not a political magazine.

            You constantly spout their line – “To inspire people to care about the planet” to point out when the Channel is missing or NGS is otherwise off-mission. But its not a political line and then you want them to focus on China’s issues – are they supposed to become Time Magazine? that’s simply my confusion. They tackle environmental issues, evolution – but that’s not taking enough stand for you (and me, honestly, i’d love to see more). I agree they need to pick some platforms, its important for their future, but this focus on China may or may not be it – but clearly that’s what you want. I mean Chen Guangcheng, really? i’m clearly more of a crass commercialist than you, but I would love to ensure that the magazine actually stays in existence and sells more than 4 copies on the newsstand. Chen has an amazing story – but the cover of geographic? no.

            Like the journalist discussion, it might be semantics – but if the magazine started covering world politics and China’s rights – I’m done. I follow that news and advocacy in other places and don’t need a scientific institution covering something already well done in many other places.

          • What do you call a Magazine that sells U.S. War Bonds on its cover (1943)?

            Re: covering “world politics” — I’m not suggesting we cover China the way The Economist or The New York Times do. But I am suggesting that what China is, what it has become, and the values it embraces are not our national values. China is different, and interesting. We should focus on that nation’s evolution because we’re the National Geographic Society. Country stories have long been an editorial staple for NGM, and for good reason: People are fundamentally interested in other people — something NGM once understood better than it does now. Please see: The Secret to National Geographic’s Success.

            I highly recommend you check out this post, which I hope answers some of your questions & concerns: You’ve got to change a bit….

          • cdwidea

            I call it a country in a world war, that’s what I call it.

            They still do stories on countries – just read an amazing one on Zimbabwe – think it was one or two months ago.

            haven’t answered my question on the Taboo photo. Nor my inspiring people question

            Other than that,I understand those issues, I just don’t agree with them to the extent you want to take it.

          • What informed NGM during WWII also animated the Magazine for another 40 years. That’s why you saw celebratory stories about Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in NGM in the 1970s… and nothing about Karl Marx.

            Country stories once had a POV, namely: open societies and democracy are preferable to dictatorship and autocracies. Now, it’s the Chris Johnsian “we have no agenda” silliness. This strikes me as a giant step backwards.

            Re: your Q about the Taboo image / video — I’m not willing to do what John Fahey is attempting to do, namely: The Magazine and the Channel are separate entities. Technically, they are, of course. But no consumer, no customer, no member makes that distinction. And the notion that we can keep them separate is dying as fast as you can say the words “media convergence.” The iPad, where the distinction between TV & magazine is disappearing, won’t allow John to play his game.

            Re: “inspiring people….” — you’re right, it’s not a political line, and that’s why John adopted it. Who doesn’t care about elephants and clean water? The real question is: What’s the best way to protect elephants and keep the water clean? And on that subject, people of good will have deep and profound differences.

            My hope is that NGS will stand up and say: We’re betting, as an institution, that the best way to create a better world is to champion open societies, free speech, and democracy. And we’ll do that not only in the editorial we create, but in the activities that we will open up for our members: We will enable them & help empower them to do what we do: Tell stories about the world and the people around them, without fear of reprisal for speaking the truth as they see it…. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.

          • cdwidea

            Your argument on the one brand is not relevant in each and every post – it was a shameless propaganda and belittles your own argument. I want to believe you are smarter than that – don’t stoop to low tactics – just make the points you have, they are valid. I may not always agree, but that’s okay, better than using shady logic.

            John adopted Inspiring people…? That wasn’t created years ago?? Isn’t it the mission of the organization? You call it hiding, some may call it doing his job – its probably a bit of both, but its not all bad.

            I don’t need NGS championing free speech, democracy and open societies- that is not their charter – at least as its core mission. Many organizations already do that – we have enough American policing of the world – geographic doesn’t need to do that. You sound like you want them to be a political advocacy group – fine,t hat’s your opinion, i, for one, would not support them – i’ll give my money to organizations more suited for that.

            Next question – what do i want them to do? more of the things you hate – portray the world as it is- let us decide and act. Take a stand on behalf of the animals, the natural world, inspire us to do better things. They can’t solve all the problems, but they can help us understand what’s going on better.

          • The original NGS mission statement was: To increase and diffuse geographic knowledge.

            John changed it about 10 years ago to: To inspire people to care about the planet.

            It was an odd choice for a magazine which nominally — and, for many decades, practically — focused on national geography… on countries… on the man-man political entities where people live, and how those people differ. For example: In some places in the world, women walk around with their breasts bare, but in the United States, women don’t. What an amazing world of difference!

            Difference not only provided the editorial frisson that made NGM such a success; it’s also a key element to the design of the Magazine itself. Talk to folks in Layout, and ask them how and why they sequence images on pages the way they do. Wide shot… tight shot… medium shot… critter shot… a human face!

            But John, being a marketing guy, was looking for a common denominator, a sameness, that would get him into China, and let him publish in Arabic and Russian. The highlighting of differences that made NGM such a success was an obstacle to becoming a global media brand. And so we officially embraced an institutional commitment to The Planet. And now we get to do business in China.

            Re: “many organizations already do that” (promote democracy) — you can say the same thing about environmental issues (WWF, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, NRDC, and on & on…)

            I don’t want NGS to be a “political advocacy group” as in: Let’s invade Afghanistan or Let’s abolish the estate tax. I want NGS to be a civilizational advocacy group — an organization that says: When we publish a special issue on China, we are going to include a 20-page story by Ha Jin about Censorship in China because it matters. The difference — between that society and ours — is critical to understand, but only if you believe a free and open society are worth preserving. (As you probably know, Chris Johns killed that story, which still speaks loudly about what our Society has become.)

            “Portray the world as it is,” you say. I agree. But we’ve stopped doing so (see Ha Jin, above), just to curry favor with powerful people who don’t deserve it.

          • P.S. re: “inspiring people to care about the planet….”

            In a comment on another post, you wrote:
            I’m inspired to watch, that’s all commercial TV really needs to do.”

            If that’s all the Channel needs to do — to get you to watch — then isn’t the Society failing to achieve its mission, at least in your case?

            Option B: Reword the mission statement: “To inspire people to watch.”

          • cdwidea

            I do watch the channel, i watch what I like, don’t watch what i don’t like – amazing. Its a commercial TV channel – its in the business of selling ads. If NG wanted to purely extend their mission to TV, they should have made a commercial free venture- but they went into a commercial business, one can only assume to make a profit (certainly that’s why fox is there). While certainly not perfect, and they’ve made plenty of mistakes, I’ve watched the channel try to blend commercial tv within areas of interest of geographic. Some work, some don’t – overreacting to a show here and there is ridiculous. (like your hutterites, hitler and other comments)

            Society isn’t failing its mission because the channel got me to watch – not sure I understand your point there.

            The difference is that you are unwilling to give any inch that some of the things the channel or ngs is doing is okay at all. I’m willing to acknowledge that some of its good- some of its embarrassingly bad, but some of it is REALLY REALLY good.

            You use this one brand conversation like its society today – as things merge, things will change. The convergence world isn’t here yet – but rapidly coming, certainly. But i don’t see any evidence that the channel is bringing the society down (quite the opposite, look at the Harris Poll brand results). Half the time (or more), I’m watching TV, i don’t even know what channel I’m on. it took me a few months to figure out Duck Dynasty was on A&E.

            TV is not just channel brand -the shows are the stronger brand than the channels themselves- which in part, can dissolve some of your ‘one brand’ argument – because its more than the channel. Brain Games has a brand all its own – i would venture to guess many viewers don’t know its on NGC and if they did, wouldn’t care one way or another. Goes for Locked up Abroad as well.

            In the future, if there are less silos around the brand – things will change and the point being is ng ready to change with it?

          • You make some good points, and yes, I can see that some of the programs, such as Brain Games, are a serious attempt to get away from the tabloid trash. I hope it works.

            You say I’ve overreacted to the Hutterites, American Gypsies, and other shows. But members of those communities were outraged by what NGC did to them. Have they overreacted too?

            Re: mission — the Society’s mission is not to “get you to watch.” The mission is “to inspire people to care about the planet.” If you simply watch, but are not inspired to care, then isn’t NGS coming up short?

            Re: “give an inch” — I did! I’ve said that much of what the 501(c)3 does is commendable; problem is, that part of the company isn’t making any money.

            Re: not knowing what channel you’re watching — I agree that the whole notion of channels is evaporating, and that what matters is the shows themselves. (I posted about this back in 2010: NG Channel: “Very Doomed”) But this trend makes John’s Channel strategy untenable over the long haul. If Brain Games has a brand all its own, and the Channel is virtually invisible, then what’s the Society’s value added? John has long been Mr. Brand, yet technology is shifting that ground beneath his feet, and I don’t see any evidence that he has a Plan B. Then again, he’ll scoot out the door into retirement before the sh*t really hits the fan.

            My biggest fear: That John’s legacy at NGS will closely resemble his legacy at Time Life Inc.

            BTW: Look at the Board of Trustees, many of them Fahey recruits. Which ones are the deep thinkers & do-ers re the media business in a digital world?

            We can do so much better than this.

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