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

Four million and falling fast

Circulation of National Geographic magazine (NGM) is about to fall below 4 million for the first time in generations. And while many print magazines are struggling, National Geographic is struggling more than most: Of the top 25 U.S. consumer magazines, only Reader’s Digest suffered a larger percentage circulation drop than did NGM for the year ending June 30, 2013:


So how does Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic, talk about the magazine when he’s in public? What do you say when your ship has a gaping hole in its hull and the entire world can see that you’re sinking?

Yes, of course. There’s digital. Digital storytelling that’s exciting and engaging, cross-generational and multi-pronged — all delivered via our critically acclaimed National Geographic iPad app… right?


In other words: the web.

But since few, if any, publishers have figured out how to make money on the web, our Society is now financially dependent on this guy:

Rupert Murdoch laughs

{ The Society’s key financial numbers are here. }

John Fahey National Geographic

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)

Our Society, by the numbers (update)

Here’s the latest financial snapshot of our Society
via IRS Form 990:

(click to enlarge)NGS_990_2011_2007_summaries

It’s worth noting that in just four years:

  • Revenue from membership has dropped roughly $25 million, or 16 percent.
  • Net revenue has nosedived by $76 million (96 percent).
  • Net assets have dropped $190 million (21 percent). 

The good news, if you’re simply counting the money, can be found at National Geographic Ventures (NGV), our Society’s wholly-owned and taxable subsidiary. NGV is the corporate umbrella for all our new media and digital initiatives. It’s also the legal home of the National Geographic Channel, which is majority owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (NGS has roughly a 30% stake in this joint venture.)

From all indications, the Channel appears to be a huge financial success. Exactly how big a success for NGS is difficult for me to quantify because NGV’s tax returns are not available to the public. But the 990s provide a hint about how much money is coursing through the Channel. On Schedule R (Related Organizations and Unrelated Partnership) in the 2011 filing, you’ll see this:


Column “f” says our Society’s share of the Channel’s income is more than $201 million; about half that amount is paid to the Society, while the remainder is retained to help the Channel grow. And grow it has: column “g” — $1.49 billion — represents the Society’s 30% share of the roughly $5.0 billion value of the Channel itself.

$1.5 billion out of $5.0 billion. That’s pretty serious money, especially when the Society’s initial investment in the Channel was less than $140 million.

How did the Channel do it? Why is it generating such impressive returns and experiencing such dramatic growth?

The short answer: People apparently love the programs about gangs… Nazis… drugs… prisons… sex addiction… prostitution… the Bikini Test… men who are sexually intimate with inflatable dolls… a woman who is addicted to having sex with strangers in a parking garage (with requisite on-screen analysis by a behavioral scientist)… Cops… lesbians in a Brazilian jail… and so on & so forth, ad nauseam.

Oh… and don’t forget about humiliating the Hutterites and the “gypsies.”

Programming brilliance? Not really.

Then again, this discussion really isn’t about Rupert Murdoch. We’ve always known who he is.

In the end, this is about who we are, and who we want to be – as a Society and as a society.

♦  Can National Geographic put its iconic name & logo on fairgrounds & brothels (the Channel) and, at the same time, on libraries & nunneries (i.e., the Magazine) — and still be taken seriously by the public?

♦  Can National Geographic build a sustainable future on a network of brothels, which are raking in the cash, while the libraries wither on the vine — and the Society’s members continue their mass exodus?

♦  Most of all: How can John Fahey manage the National Geographic brand when the Channel, which reaches hundreds of millions of people around the world, is beyond his editorial control?

Put another way: What happens to The Brand’s hard-earned reputation when the Channel showcases stuff like this in prime time…

… and programs like this one called Sex for Sale, which is about “high-end sex work”…

… while our Chairman & CEO shows this earnest face to the public:

… but makes jokes in private about the Society’s embrace of “factual fiction”:

From a no-nonsense, hard-headed business perspective,
is this wise brand management?
And: Is it sustainable? 

We posed that question to Professor Sanal Mazvancheryl,
an expert in brand management
who teaches at the Kogod School of Business at American University:


John Fahey National Geographic

“Amplifying the voice of the everyday people”?

National Geographic temporarily stopped posting images on Instagram to protest changes to Instagram’s Terms of Service. But now…


From Kevin Systrom’s post:

… You also had deep concerns about whether under our new terms, Instagram had any plans to sell your content. I want to be really clear: Instagram has no intention of selling your photos, and we never did.

From the comments on Instagram about @NatGeo’s return:

reefrevolution @natgeo thanks for speaking up!

julievaillancourt26 Proof that when people stand up, companies don’t have a choice but to listen!!!

wbjamiso Thanks Nat Geo for publicly speaking up and amplifying the voice of the everyday people.

adams_daily_photo_mojo Do not be fooled!! NatGeo does the same thing Instagram is doing. Any images you submit to Nat Geo can be used in ads by them or their affiliates. #callaspadeaspade#hypocrites #shameonyou

Adams Daily Photo Mojo makes an excellent point. Here’s an excerpt from National Geographic’s Terms of Service:

5. You retain all of your ownership rights in material you upload, comments you post, or other content you provide to the Site (“User Content”). By uploading User Content, however, you grant National Geographic (which includes its subsidiaries, affiliates, joint venturers, and licensees) the following rights: a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual license to display, distribute, reproduce, and create derivatives of the User Content, in whole or in part, without further review or participation from you, in any medium now existing or subsequently developed, in editorial, commercial, promotional, and trade uses in connection with NG Products. National Geographic may license or sublicense, in whole or in part, to third parties rights in User Content as appropriate to distribute, market, or promote such NG Products. ….”

That language doesn’t really suggest that our Society is “speaking up and amplifying the voice of the everyday people.” But we do love the sentiment.

Confronting The Mob vs. Enabling It

Here’s Eric Winston, a lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, lambasting the fans in Kansas City — the customers — for cheering when quarterback Matt Cassel was injured on Sunday:


Here’s John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of National Geographic, explaining that the trashy tabloid TV programs served up by our Society are a natural response to what customers demand:

And speaking of The Mob, don’t forget this letter (to which John Fahey has not yet responded):

Hancock to Fahey Sept 26 2012

“National Geographic has its good name attached to this garbage?”

I’ve had my differences with PZ Myers, who is one of the marquee bloggers at ScienceBlogs.

But I’ll give him this: He doesn’t mince his words.

Here’s his take on a recent public poll that asked voters which presidential candidate they thought would handle a UFO invasion best. The poll was conducted by National Geographic, which owns and operates ScienceBlogs… and which pays PZ Myers:

{ Read the whole thing here. }

Then again, maybe there’s a method to this apparent madness: National Geographic dreamed up the poll… paid for it… publicized it… reaped the rewards of that publicity… and then criticized it on web pages featuring ads for the new Toyota Prius  — and it all came out of one shop.

In other words: National Geographic has managed to monetize a conflict of its own creation. (See also: the ongoing controversy about Meet The Hutterites.)

This build the fire, feed the fire strategy is a staple at Fox News, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns the National Geographic Channel.

Which makes me think that Rupert Murdoch is a lot like fight promoter Don King, but with far more media clout — and a lot less hair.


Watch as National Geographic’s family-friendly brand continues its breathtaking implosion, while a powerful media magnate laughs all the way to the bank

Daddy, did you see those two ladies?
Why are they dressed up like puppies?
And why is one of the ladies on a doggie leash?


For details on how much money 
the National Geographic Channel is generating
by slapping our Society’s good name on its tabloid fare, 

please see Our Society, by the numbers.

Divide & conquer

When the Hutterites raised their voices in protest against 
the National Geographic Channel’s new reality TV series
Meet The Hutterites,
what was the response of the production team?

Locate the institutional divide at National Geographic,
and drive a wedge into it:

What’s that stomach-churning odor?

Read the whole thing here.

John Fahey National Geographic

Dear John,
Do you have any major revenue-generating ideas 
other than turning over our Society’s future
to Rupert Murdoch?

We do.
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch
if you’d like to hear the details.

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