Tale of Two Stories

This feature story about the illegal ivory trade — with a special focus on China — was recently posted at The Atlantic:

The Atlantic story on elephant poaching

This cover story on the same subject — but which focuses on the Philippines (not China) and the use of ivory by religious communities (i.e., Buddhists and Catholics) — was published by National Geographic in October 2012:

NGM Blood Ivory cover

Length of The Atlantic‘s story, in words: 12,700+
Number of times the “Philippines” is mentioned: 3

Length of the National Geographic story, in words: 7,500+
Number of times the “Philippines” is mentioned: 18

What The Atlantic says about the Philippines (all three mentions):

  • … The rest goes to Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and other Asian friends of the United States, in routine disregard of the ivory ban that the United States led a generation ago.
  • … The prospect of sanctions came up the last time around, when, as the Bangkok Post recounts, the conference identified three African nations, along with transit countries Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and top markets China and Thailand – as making insufficient efforts to curb the trade.
  • … They need to trust us on this one, as do Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and every other friendly or dependent government in the Asia-Pacific region, and more “promising steps” such as Secretary Clinton noted last November aren’t going to cut it.

What National Geographic says about the Philippines (only 4 of 18 mentions):

  • “The Philippines is a favorite destination of these smuggled elephant tusks, maybe because Filipino Catholics are fond of images of saints that are made of ivory.” 
  • When I ask how new ivory gets to the Philippines, he tells me that Muslims from the southern island of Mindanao smuggle it in.
  • During my five trips to the Philippines I visited every one of the ivory shops Garcia recommended to me and more, inquiring about buying ivory. More than once I was asked if I was a priest. 
  • Corruption is so bad in the Philippines that in 2006 the wildlife department sued senior customs officers for “losing” several tons of seized ivory. 

What a political cartoonist in the Philippines says about Bryan Christy, who wrote the National Geographic cover story:

political cartoon about NGM coverage of Blood Ivory

Number of times National Geographic mentions “Buddhist”:  10
Number of times The Atlantic mentions “Buddhist”: 0

Number of times National Geographic mentions “Catholic”: 8
Number of times The Atlantic mentions “Catholic”:  0

Number of times I’ve asked Bryan Christy for an on-the-record Q&A so he can describe in detail his fieldwork for this story: 6
Number of times Bryan Christy has responded or acknowledged my requests: 0

What might explain National Geographic‘s willingness to punch well below its weight class, and beat up the Philippines instead of China?

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)

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society


  • bob

    The National Geographic story takes a different and far narrower approach than The Atlantic (which, interestingly, uses Christie as a source) focusing solely on the use of illegal ivory for religious icons and items, so your comparison is apples to oranges. Even still, China is hardly absent from the article. A chart clearly shows China’s place among the ivory importers (#1 by far) and a section on China begins on page 52 with, “By all accounts, China is the world’s greatest villain when it comes to smuggled ivory. In recent years China has been implicated in more large-scale ivory seizures than any other non-African country.”

    • But it’s not apples to oranges, Bob. It’s a story about Blood Ivory, and both magazines make an attempt to shine a bright light on what’s driving the slaughter of elephants. The Atlantic focused on China, but NGM decided the Philippines was the right approach. Why? My guess — and, since Bryan Christy refuses to respond to my interview requests, it’s only a guess — is that Chris Johns decided, yet again, to punch well below his weight class. Beating up the Philippinos, the Buddhists, and the Catholics costs him virtually nothing, whereas going after China with all the Society’s resources would be problematic from a business standpoint. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you etc.

      As for the chart and the paragraph on page 52 etc — that’s the oldest game in the book. Headline the Philippines… publicize the story as an investigative piece on religious icons crafted from ivory tusks… devote 90 percent of your resources, and five (!) field visits to the Philippines…and then bury some data and sentences in the middle of the coverage about China’s massive footprint so you have plausible deniability at moments like this. I’m sorry, that just doesn’t cut it.

      This sentence from Bryan Christy was telling: The Philippines’ ivory market is small compared with, say, China’s, but it is centuries old and staggeringly obvious. If it’s so small and so obvious, why focus an investigative cover story on it?

      Again, the question is: Why the narrower approach?

      • bob

        Maybe because a light needs to be directed at the other violators in this arena. China is the biggest but not the only criminal.
        Problem is, I can use your same arguments to criticize the Atlantic piece, with the slant that by focusing solely on China they are allowing smaller, possibly more U.S.-friendly countries to escape notice. Even when, combined, they import far more ivory than China. It’s easy to find fault, or, more accurately, to create fault, by denying that it is a legitimate editorial decision to approach the topic from a different viewpoint. Which seems to be your approach to “journalism.”

        • Well, then we clearly don’t agree. I think that if a magazine with the reach of National Geographic does a story about what’s driving the blood ivory trade, and puts that story on its cover as an “investigation,” and then puts its crosshairs on the Philippines instead of China, then that editorial decision begs for scrutiny. Why focus on a market that, in Bryan Christy’s own words, is “small compared with, say, China’s, but is centuries old and staggeringly obvious.”

          Small, old, and obvious, but we’ll cover it anyway. That just doesn’t add up.

          Tiptoeing around China is nothing new for NGM, of course. Read this post — Adventures in Global Media — and explain to me why Chris Johns killed Ha Jin’s story. (The reason is painfully obvious, even if you choose to look the other way.)

          Thanks for stopping by, and for your comments.

          • Jan Adkins

            Yellow journalism is partisan presswork in the service of promoting or protecting someone. In its classic sense it inflates minor factors as complete explanations, and calls flamboyant attention to a small gesture to disguise large damage being done elsewhere. It worked for Tammany Hall and it worked for Josef Goebbels. It’s a standby of corrupt regimes and compromised editors.

            The litmus here is whether the reader will think that an article on Blood Ivory in National Geographic Magazine is thorough explanation for the massacre of “those trumpeting Gabriels of creation.” The come-on is gore and “Blood Ivory,” which posits the central feature of the story – rare and precious elephants slain for money. There is nothing in the title or the approach to suggest that it’s a story about Buddhist or Roman Catholic icons. “Icons, Elephants and Greed” isn’t the title. This is National Geographic: the reader expects a global perspective on an important issue. Like poaching one of the scarcest and most magnificent creatures on earth for the benefit a few callous buyers.

            Bob’s apology for yellow journalism is contrived and unconvincing. How did the Philippines get under the crosshairs and where did the religious angle come from? It’s the wrong villain set up with some less-than-damning details. This is like doing a story on acid rain and blaming two woodstoves at the Buddhist shrine and the Catholic chapel.

            China is a big place with vast margins for mistakes and missteps. It’s attempting to enter the civilized world as an open and modern state. Let China defend its own errors. It may do so gracefully. It doesn’t need a yellow smokescreen from what was once an honest source of geographic knowledge.

          • Jan,

            From here on in, I’m going to leave all replies in the comment section to you. 🙂

            Thanks for (once again) saying so eloquently what needed to be said. I especially liked your point about blaming acid rain on two woodstoves at a Buddhist shrine and a Catholic chapel. Sure, those two stoves might contribute to the problem in the smallest of ways, but blaming one Buddhist and one Catholic — or even all Buddhists and Catholics — certainly misses the broader point and the much bigger story.

            I also can’t help but think about NGM’s Research staff — the very talented fact checkers who no doubt subjected Bryan Christy’s manuscript to careful review. Did all the facts that we published about the ivory trade check out? Evidently so. Yet despite being factually accurate, the story failed to be intellectually honest — pointing a finger at the Philippines when China really deserves the scrutiny. For that failure, the finger should be pointed not at the researchers, but at Bryan Christy and Chris Johns.

            As I mentioned in the post, I’ve tried many times to contact Mr. Christy to discuss exactly how this story came together. So far, he has failed to respond — and he has blocked me on Twitter. Why, I wonder, is an investigative journalist like Bryan Christy so hesitant to answer a few simple questions about his story?

          • bob

            I do feel better now; now that I understand that the carving of ivory for religious icons is NOT a significant driving force behind the slaughter of elephants. Obviously you two have some detailed statistics, albeit only expressed in a clever wood stove analogy, to bolster that point and contradict Bryan Christy’s article. Because, as a concerned citizen of the planet, I would much rather continue to simply demonize China (which does the job well enough on its own) and not have to think about the motivation to kill these creatures that is provided by the church or temple where I worship.

          • Bob – Just read what Byran Christy wrote: “The Philippines’ ivory market is small compared with, say, China’s, but it is centuries old and staggeringly obvious.” If so, then why all the handwringing about what’s happening in the Philippines?

            And it’s not a matter of “demonizing” China. It’s simply a matter of shining the spotlight in a place that illuminates the real source of the problem.

            Also: You didn’t comment on my earlier question: “Read this post — Adventures in Global Media — and explain to me why Chris Johns killed Ha Jin’s story. (The reason is painfully obvious, even if you choose to look the other way.)

          • bob

            I have no idea why Ha Jin’s story would have been killed; obviously, from your own post, neither do you. But to say it was killed to placate the Chinese doesn’t really make sense. The only reason to allow that kind of control over the magazine would be if there was a huge tangible benefit. I’m pretty sure that, proud as NGS might be to have a Chinese edition, that it is not making any significant money for the Society.
            Besides, to the best of my knowledge, China likes full censorship, not just a reduction of the size of the negative coverage.

          • Oh, but I do have an idea: Chris Johns can’t show up in Beijing to celebrate a new publishing partnership with the Party, while simultaneously publishing a 4,000-word story about how the Party muzzles the Chinese people. Chris (and John) have positioned the Society as the organization that cares about cheetahs, not human rights — partly because that’s the ticket into China.

            What the autocrats in China like best is when they don’t have to muzzle you; rather, you muzzle yourself. Please see The Anaconda in the Chandelier.

          • bob

            “Eight months ago, Bryan Christy reported on the illegal elephant ivory trade and its religious undertones at the expense of thousands of elephants each year in an October NGM cover story. “From the vantage of history, this killing field is not new at all,” he wrote. “It is timeless and it is now.”

            last week marked a new and timely milestone in the fight against
            elephant poaching after the Philippines, one of the top nine countries
            propelling the trade and a focal point in Bryan’s story, publicly
            destroyed around five tons of smuggled ivory worth $5 million.

            move represents the first time an ivory-consuming or ivory-transit
            country has destroyed ivory in a bold message to poachers and smugglers,
            and Philippine government officials credit National Geographic’s
            October 2012 story with inspiring the action — a story that continues to unfold.”

          • Bravo!

            I await Bryan’s follow-up cover story: In the Belly of the Beast: China & the Destruction of the Elephants.

            In the interim, I await Bryan’s response to my 6 requests (all unanswered) for an interview in which he can explain why he & Chris Johns decided to punch well below their weight class by going after the Philippines instead of the epicenter of ivory demand: China.

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