RIP: Society Matters (2009-2014)

After more than four years of reporting and writing here at Society Matters — about the future of journalism, and about the past, present, and future of the National Geographic Society — this post will be my last one. Here’s why…


On November 11, 2013 — one day after I published a post called “Why did Chris Johns kill the Egypt story?” — Terry Adamson, Chief Legal Officer at the National Geographic Society, sent me a letter (via email and next-day courier), with cc’s to John Fahey, Chairman of NGS, and Tony Sablo, head of National Geographic’s Human Resources division. In the letter, Terry expressed his… well, let’s just say “some concerns.” I responded to Terry (and John & Tony) via email… received another letter from Terry… and later talked to Terry and Tony on the phone. Then I hired a lawyer — a friend who runs a small law practice in Silver Spring, Maryland.

On December 10, 2013, my lawyer sent a reply to Terry. Here’s how it concluded: “Alan and I would be willing to meet with you to discuss how we can establish some specific guidelines that might help us avoid any future misunderstandings…. Our goal is to find a mutually agreeable and constructive way to move forward, and to help NGS survive and thrive in the months and years to come.”

On January 17, 2014, we received a reply from attorney David Hensler, a partner at Hogan Lovells, a law firm with more than 2,500 attorneys operating out of more than 40 offices in the United States, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. According to the Hogan Lovells website:

David [Hensler] was described as “the city’s commercial litigator par excellence” in a Legal Times article titled “Identifying 20 Leading Litigators.” David was also described as “a 24-carat commercial litigator” and was ranked No. 1 for General Commercial Litigation in Washington, D.C. in Chambers USA: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business Litigation. David is also listed as a leading Commercial Litigator in The Best Lawyers in America and Chambers Global—The World’s Leading Lawyers for Business.

Dear John Fahey: Message received.


Before I say good-bye, a few thank yous:

The Final Word goes to NGS Chairman John Fahey:  


I couldn’t agree more.

all the best,

Why did Chris Johns kill the Egypt story?

(Please scroll down to hear these two interviews.)

(Please scroll down to hear these two interviews.)

Something doesn’t add up here….

According to a recent news report, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the National Geographic Society for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In that report, there’s a puzzling anecdote about Chris Johns, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic magazine, who back in 2005 commissioned, then later killed a feature article about Egypt which shed light on the brutal reign of Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak. The story — (presciently) reported and written six years before the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring — was the work of Chris Hedges, a former Mideast bureau chief for The New York Times and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Why did Chris Johns kill Chris Hedges’ Egypt story? In that news report, the editor and the journalist offer contradictory explanations. According to Chris Hedges, his story was killed because National Geographic Television (NGT) had reviewed the manuscript, and concluded that publishing it would infuriate President Mubarak and his top lieutenants, who would deny NGT access to ancient archaeological sites in Egypt. Among those lieutenants: Zahi Hawass, who was then Egypt’s Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.

Editor Chris Johns says killing the story was his decision, and his alone, and not the result of any pressure applied by National Geographic Television, or by Egyptian officials, including Zahi Hawass.

To help resolve these contradictions, and to discover exactly what happened and why, I conducted two separate interviews — one with Chris Hedges, the other with Chris Johns.

Chris Hedges (interviewed on 29 October 2013):

Chris Johns (interviewed on 6 November 2013):

{UPDATE: This audio interview was removed at the request of Terry Adamson,
NGS Executive Vice President & Chief Legal Officer.}

It’s worth noting that Chris Johns did NOT say: Chris Hedges’ reporting was poor. Or: Reza’s photographs were uninspiring. Or: The story failed to break any new ground. Or: I cannot fully articulate what troubled me about the story, and I still can’t quite find the words, so I followed my gut instincts and killed the story. Or: I don’t remember. 

No. What Chris Johns says is: “It’s none of your business.”

In other words: I have a reason I killed this story, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.

Consider that shove-off — and then connect the dots that Chris Hedges lays out above — and you’ll begin to appreciate what ails National Geographic magazine, and what is undermining the credibility of the 125-year-old National Geographic Society.

In case you’re wondering if this episode is an outlier, or an anomaly, please remember that kowtowing to dictators is nothing new in the Chris Johns era. For example, back in 2007, Chris commissioned a story about another powerful regime that violently crushes the democratic aspirations of its own people. But when The (Editor’s) Decisive Moment arrived — to publish or not to publish — Chris Johns killed that story too. For details, please see:


{ The link in the above clip will take you
to the main story: Adventures in Global Media. }

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)

See also: The Anaconda in The Chandelier

What, then, do Chinese authorities want journalists talking about? Cheetahs.


Meanwhile, at our Society:
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)

Rupert Murdoch laughs John Fahey National Geographic

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

What happens when a Society has “no agenda“?

Rupert Murdoch laughs

John Fahey National Geographic

Report: NGS under criminal investigation


Some excerpts:

By Aram Roston
Posted: OCT 27, 2013 15:20 UTC
UPDATED: OCT 27, 2013 23:09 UTC

This is not your typical story about international bribery. For one thing, it involves mummies. It also involves one of America’s most beloved institutions: National Geographic.

Vocativ has learned that the Justice Department has opened a criminal bribery investigation into the prestigious nonprofit. At issue: Nat Geo’s tangled relationship with Dr. Zahi Hawass, a world-famous Indiana Jones–type figure who for years served as the official gatekeeper to Egypt’s glittering antiquities.

Beginning in 2001 and continuing for a decade, National Geographic paid the archaeologist between $80,000 and $200,000 a year for his expertise. The payments came at a time when the popularity of mummies and pharaohs was helping transform the 125-year-old explorer society into a juggernaut with multiple glossies, a publishing house and a television channel. But they also came as Hawass was still employed by the Egyptian government to oversee the country’s priceless relics.

So did this money give Nat Geo unfair access to a lucrative market for all things ancient Egypt? National Geographic wouldn’t comment on any investigation or “conversations we may or may not have had with governmental bodies about legal matters,” says a spokeswoman for the nonprofit. But the company says its payments were lawful. As for Hawass, he firmly denies that anything untoward took place. “It was a contract,” he says. “It was not a bribe. I gave no single favor to National Geographic.”

Whether Nat Geo broke the law is unclear. But its relationship with Hawass offers a window into the interlaced world of money, science and show business that has developed around Egypt’s artifacts. …

The story of how National Geographic found itself in potential legal hot water coincides with the nonprofit’s decision to launch an American cable channel. For years Nat Geo was known for its iconic, yellow-bordered magazine and lush photography. It produced books and documentaries, had a show on PBS and dabbled in cable TV overseas. But it wasn’t until 2001 that the society partnered with Fox and launched the National Geographic Channel in the United States, the biggest television market in the world. This decision cast the society into a pitched battle for ratings with the likes of Discovery Networks.

Seven months after the channel launched, National Geographic announced it was adding Hawass as explorer-in-residence—an honor held by the likes of Jane Goodall, the legendary anthropologist. …

The relationship between Hawass and Nat Geo was a knotted one, and legal experts say it presented unique challenges in parsing the law. Every two years, Hawass signed a new explorer-in-residence agreement with National Geographic, and every two years, the society paid him more and more money. In his contract, Hawass had to indicate that his services for National Geographic—evidently a few lectures and some consulting projects—were outside his official duties as a government official. He also had to agree that his services were legal under Egyptian law.

American law, experts say, may be a different matter entirely. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it illegal to pay foreign officials for “securing any improper advantage,” according to the Justice Department. Criminal bribery penalties can be stiff, with company fines up to $2 million. Individuals can be forced to serve up to five years in prison and pay more than $250,000. …

Indeed, despite his agreement with National Geographic, Hawass sometimes provided full access to their rivals. “Nat Geo and Discovery were always kind of competing with each other for what Zahi would throw them,” says one source, “for what project Zahi would grant them the right to produce as an exclusive.”

The ratings battle was so heated that some are convinced National Geographic did whatever it could to stay in Hawass’ good graces. Chris Hedges, a well-known former New York Times reporter, says the society was so obsessed with access that it killed one of his stories for their magazine in 2003. The topic: the dark side of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, a police state replete with poverty and repression. “It was all laid out,” he says. “And the television division read it and freaked out.” The fear, Hedges was told, was that the Egyptian government would be furious. And though he was paid in full, the story never ran.

Chris Johns, who was and still is editor in chief of National Geographic magazine, disagreed with Hedges about the story. ”As anyone who has ever done editorial work knows, stories get changed, dropped and redirected all the time and for all kinds of reasons,” he said. “In this particular case, my decision not to move forward had nothing whatsoever to do with National Geographic Television, nor any concerns that someone in Egypt may or may not have had.” …

Read the whole thing here.


The story spreads via Twitter:

{ as of 28 October 2013 @ 1:50pm }





“Pandering to the fears that divide us…”

John Fahey, Chairman of the National Geographic Society, is the architect of the organization’s two-pronged brand strategy: the good works of the Society — the Magazine, Mission programs, the education programs, and more, all of which cost a lot of money — would be subsidized by the tabloid trash on the National Geographic Channel (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation). John’s assumption: The Quality would not get infected by The Sleaze.

Here at Society Matters, we’ve argued that John’s assumption was, and remains, fatally flawed. We believe that “you can’t promote wisdom with your right hand and champion ignorance with your left.” If you need more proof, here’s an incisive and eloquent letter of resignation from a longtime member of NGS:

1325 Waterford Drive
East Greenwich RI 02818
25 October 2013

Mr. Gary Knell
President and CEO
National Geographic
1145 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036

Dear Mr. Knell,

I wanted to write and let you know that this edition will be the last in my subscription to National Geographic Magazine. My grandparents were subscribers, as were my parents, and I have been a subscriber for more than 20 years. Over the course of those years, I have loved the world that the magazine opened up before me through its stunning photos and well researched articles. I learned much about the history, beauty and fragility of our planet and all its peoples.

However, I can no longer support an organization that has strayed so far from its original mission. One of the main faces of the National Geographic brand is now the TV channel which perpetuates the worst kind of sensationalist shows. Programs like Doomsday Preppers, Doomsday Castle and the new American Blackout encourage suspicion, fear, and violence. These are the anthesis [sic] of the original National Geographic values of encouraging knowledge, understanding, and illustrating our common humanity.

I urge you not to abandon the original vision and values of National Geographic and to rethink the current strategy. There is a great need for informative, researched, thoughtful programs about our natural world and the lives and hopes of people all around the globe. Please find it in your heart and conscious [sic] not to pander to the fears that divide us but the hopes and goals that unite us. Maybe then my children will be able to become subscribers too (digital ones of course).

Sincerely yours,


Chris Perrett (Mrs.)

cc: Mr. John Fahey, Chairman of the Board of Trustees
National Geographic Magazine Letter to the Editor




The world we imagine

Photojournalists often claim their photographs are simply a visual document of the way the world truly is — an “unbiased” reflection of reality.

What I love about Richard Rinaldi’s “Touching Strangers” project (below) is the full embrace of the opposite conceit: photography as a reflection of the world we picture, the world we imagine, the world as we want it to be.

(Thanks for the tip, Alydda.) 

That was fast


{ Read the whole thing here. }

Actually, it looks like Mr. Lively completed his work in a little more than 12 months:

So, to sum up: Mr. Lively has evidently raised boatloads of money in a soft economy during a capital campaign that he originally believed would last two or three years (and he’s a fundraising veteran), yet his “mission” is “accomplished” in only one year. Also, he raised all that money (sum not specified) with virtually no public recognition thus far of the huge gifts National Geographic must be receiving from generous philanthropists.

That’s amazing – and a powerful testament to Mr. Lively’s prodigious talents, John Fahey’s clear vision, and the wonderful reputation that the National Geographic Society still seems to enjoy.

Congratulations to the whole team!

(P.S. I wonder what it’s like to fundraise for an organization where Rupert Murdoch is such a towering financial presence.)


Update, 19 October 2013

From The Dallas Morning News, 7 April 2012:


Educating the Global Citizen




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