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

The Damage


Pierre Omidyar is the founder and chairman of eBay, and founder of the Omidyar Network, an investment firm that fosters economic advancement and encourages individual participation across multiple investment areas, including microfinance, property rights, and government transparency.


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)

Read how Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic magazine,
self-censored when the (Chinese) government began watching our Society.

If National Geographic refuses to speak out
about the ongoing house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo,
then what Chinese topics is it okay for our Society to address in public?
Evidently, stuff like this:



James Cameron & The (Moral) Abyss (part 2)

Du Bin Chinese filmmaker disappears

{ Read the whole thing here. }

James Cameron on China

James Cameron, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence

{ Read the entire interview here. }

James Cameron on cover of National Geographic magazine

NGM, June 2013

It’s worth remembering that National Geographic didn’t always turn a blind eye to autocrats and dictators:

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)

Free speech is dying in China… but, hey, isn’t that a lovely photo of a cloud?

{ Read the whole thing here. }

For those media executives who are willing to play ball,
a different dream lives on: 

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM’s new publishing partnership in the People’s Republic of China. (2007)

Front page of ngmchina.com.cn (People’s Republic of China), September 14, 2012


Political Prisoners in the People’s Republic of China (2010)

James Cameron & The (Moral) Abyss

This is embarrassing — especially from someone who recently became a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence:

… James Cameron: “Titanic” is actually censored less this time [in China] than it was in ’97. Because it was their second bite at the apple. It’s gotten much wider and we’re seeing it being less restrictive. So we’re moving in the right direction. The quotas for international films coming in now, it’s a higher quota, the percentage of revenue is higher, so everything is moving in the right direction. You see the market opening up. And I think that that’s having a beneficial effect in that it’s growing the exhibition market internally, if you look at how rapidly theaters are being built here.  …

NYT: You must have had people talk to you to give you a briefing on the censorship process, about how it works or how it’s affected certain films [in China]. Do you have any general thoughts on that?

James Cameron

James Cameron: As an artist, I’m always against censorship. But censorship’s a reality, even in the U.S. We have a form of it there. We used to have the Hays commission. We now have the M.P.A.A. ratings system, which is basically a self-censorship process that prevents government from doing it. But the economic imperatives are that if you get an R rating, the studio won’t make a film that looks like it’s headed toward an R rating, and if you get a R you’ve got to cut it yourself to comply with PG-13. So it’s really just a form of censorship indirectly.”

NYT: Do you consider that the same as Chinese censorship?

James Cameron: You’ve got a little more choice in it. It’s not as draconian. But I can’t be judgmental about another culture’s process. I don’t think that’s healthy.

NYT: Did you talk to other filmmakers – your peers – about Chinese censorship?

James Cameron: No. I’m not interested in their reality. My reality is that I’ve made two films in the last 15 years that both have been resounding successes here, and this is an important market for me. And so I’m going to do what’s necessary to continue having this be an important market for my films. And I’m going to play by the rules that are internal to this market. Because you have to. You know, I can stomp my feet and hold my breath but I’m not going to change people’s minds that way. Now I do feel that everything is trending in the right direction right now, as I mentioned earlier.

Read the whole thing here.


As Mr. Cameron mentioned earlier, “trending in the right direction” isn’t about human rights or freedom of expression; it’s about quotas for international films, share of revenue, and the Chinese market opening up to people like James Cameron. 

If Mr. Cameron suddenly develops an interest in the reality faced by his peers in China — filmmakers, writers, artists, and others — then he should take a peek at Freedom in the World 2012 (published by Freedom House): 


With a sensitive change of leadership approaching in 2012 and popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes occurring across the Middle East, the ruling Chinese Communist Party showed no signs of loosening its grip on power in 2011. Despite minor legal improvements regarding the death penalty and urban property confiscation, the government stalled or even reversed previous reforms related to the rule of law, while security forces resorted to extralegal forms of repression. Growing public frustration over corruption and injustice fueled tens of thousands of protests and several large outbursts of online criticism during the year. The party responded by committing more resources to internal security forces and intelligence agencies, engaging in the systematic enforced disappearance of dozens of human rights lawyers and bloggers, and enhancing controls over online social media.

And this from Reporters Without Borders: 

And this from Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Price, who is still under house arrest in China. Mr. Cameron says “you have to” “play by the rules that are internal to this market,” but Liu Xiaobo is a living proof that you don’t: 

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)


A conversation with Chris Johns, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Magazine

Once a field photographer, Chris Johns now works out of his office at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC. (photo by David Alan Harvey)

Not in conversation with us, of course. It’s a conversation with veteran NGM photographer David Alan Harvey, who has known Chris for decades as a colleague and a friend.

David Alan Harvey

When we discovered, several days ago, that David had scheduled this interview, we encouraged him to make the most of his opportunity, especially since there’s so much at stake:

Please know,” we wrote to David, “that you are, in many ways, representing a whole lot of photographers, writers, editors, researchers, cartographers, designers, and many others who will never be given the chance to interview Chris on the record — but whose livelihoods rely on what happens to the Magazine.”

We also encouraged David to pursue an important issue that a gentleman named Sidney Atkins had posted at David’s website. Sidney wanted Chris to address greenwashing in the pages of National Geographic, and the impact of corporate advertising on the Magazine’s (and the Society’s) credibility.

Sidney also wondered about editorial self-censorship: “[W]hat I am really curious about is how as editor [Chris Johns] balances the pressures that I know must be on him to “go easy” on certain topics, or avoid certain topics….” Another reader seconded Sidney’s motion: “I share your view completely,” wrote Gerhard. “Your write-up is excellent and to the the point.”

But as you’ll see when you read the “interview” – and we encourage you to read the whole thing — David decided to… well, to take the conversation in a very different direction. Instead of addressing Sidney’s and Gerhard’s questions, or talking about the earthquake rattling the world of professional photojournalists — and all the related challenges for National Geographic — the guys spent most of their time chatting about drive and passion and hunger and spark and being in the zone. Also, much talk about voice. And hunger.

Chris Johns, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic magazine

The “interview” goes on for more than 3,100 words. Notably absent are words such as internet, web, digital, team, society, innovation, growth, sustainability, social, community, future, or hope.

Reading the transcript, you’ll find almost nothing that will be new or illuminating to photographers or NGM staffers. There’s nothing to suggest that we’re living, right now, in what might be called “the decisive [journalistic] moment.” Instead, two guys share their feelings and stroke each other. They say things that could have been said in 1990 — and probably were.

Like an old, faded photograph, this “interview” seems anachronistic, frozen in time.

For two photographers who take great professional pride in capturing moments, they seem blissfully unaware of — or consciously uninterested in — the moment we’re all living through right now.

And what poor timing: This week, “the tribe” of NGM photographers has gathered at NGS headquarters for their annual photo seminar and professional meetings. What a wonderful opportunity David had to invite Chris to begin a real conversation with our community about the future. About a Plan for the road ahead. About the next chapter in The National Geographic Story.

Instead, Chris and David — two tribal elders — sat down to chat, exchanged many words, yet shed very little light. Lots of voice… but no vision.

It depresses us to say so, David, but: You missed the shot.

An excerpt from the “interview”:

Chris Johns: … Well people say ” I want your job”…well so what? No I want people who are hungry and are walking the walk. I mean just putting it out there and they really believe in what they do. They care deeply about what they do. And they want to be better. Yet, they’ve got their voice and what they want to do is not be like everybody else, they want to take the voice they have, the experiences of their life, their soul, your life’s experiences, and refine it, and amplify it, and bring it to another level to share. To share what they see, to share what they feel. It’s just this sensational honor. David, you’ve got it. Hunger.

David Alan Harvey: And you do too.

CJ: Absolutely. Yes, hunger.

DAH: All of us. Deep.

CJ:  I don’t know why.

DAH:  I don’t know why either. I don’t know if we’ve explained anything to anybody but its [sic] true. That hunger is the thing.

CJ:  It’s the same thing. It’s this drive. You know, when I became editor of the magazine, the drive didn’t go away, it was channeled in a slightly…

DAH: In a slightly different direction.

CJ:  I still work 60 or 70 hours a week.

DAH:  Well I didn’t think you took this job to take a vacation. 

Okay, so you’ve got two books that we can talk about and twenty some magazine articles, and at sixty years old your [sic] thinking its [sic] time to get your act together. Now that is so weird. Nelson Mandela wrote your forward [sic]. Amazing.

CJ: I’ve got to do better.   

DAH: Yeah, I know the feeling.  

CJ: I can’t be slipshod here.

DAH: No but yet at the same time, you value time with your family. I’ve seen you with your family. You value time with your friends. I’ve seen that as well. You have Elizabeth, who you met in Africa and Nichole, Louise, Tim who are just the nicest young people.

CJ:  My family is number one.

DAH: So you’re not just a maniac. But it’s a work ethic thing. It’s a work ethic, it’s a passion.

CJ: It’s a deep thing where you know, you talk to a great writer, you talk to a great photographer, and you can’t help yourself. You have to work. You have to take pictures. You have to create. These are things that you are… these are almost obsessions.

DAH: Wait a minute. Say that again,  you can’t help yourself?

CJ: You can’t help yourself.

DAH: That’s it. You just can’t help yourself.

CJ: Sure.

DAH: So this whole interview comes down to that?

CJ: Absolutely.

{ end of “interview” }

Be sure to check out David Alan Harvey’s upcoming story about the place he now calls home — the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Chris Johns has scheduled this story — with photographs and text by David — for publication later this year in National Geographic.

“Self-censorship and castration” in China

Han Han is a 29-year-old Chinese professional race-car driver, author, and cultural critic. He’s also China’s — and perhaps the world’s — most popular blogger. In a recent essay (translated by the China Media Project), he discusses his personal experiences with censorship in China, which he compares to castration:

Han Han

I haven’t written anything since [my July post] “Nation Derailed.” In point of fact, I’m not very diligent about my writing, and each time I do finish writing something and then can’t see it [after I post it, because it has been censored], I get despondent. And there are just so many government departments [to get past]. …

I’ve been involved in this work [of writing] for around 13 years now, and I now understand just how powerless and of no account cultural workers (文化工作者) really are. Owing to a richness of restrictions, people in this line of work are unable to produce anything truly special. 

And so up to this very day, everyone and anyone involved in culture is engaged in a painful process of self-censorship. So can we look forward to publishing houses lowering their taste a bit. This is of course impossible. As soon as a publishing house shows any sign of notching down its taste — remembering that these are state-run units — the authorities will just send over a new publishing chief. The nasty thing about post-facto censorship is how it exacts penalties. It says, look, I’m not going to look over your shoulder, but if you publish something improper I’ll have your head for it. If it’s something less serious I’ll fire you from your post or disband the publishing house; if it’s serious I’ll lock you up. So, you decide how you want to do it.

As for myself, while every single essay I write goes through a process of self-censorship and castration, sometimes unavoidably the fashion of my castration is still insufficient to past muster. This has to do with the level of sensitivity at various publishing houses. For example, my most recent novel has been killed outright, because the protagonist in the novel is surnamed Hu [like China’s president]. So even though I have only written 5,000 characters so far, the publisher assumes there must be political allegory somewhere. By the time I realized I had to avoid this name and changed the character’s surname it was too late.

I don’t know how a country where a writer trembles when he takes up his pen can build itself into a cultural great nation (文化强国)….

Read the full excerpt here.

For National Geographic’s response to such “self-censorship and castration,” see this.
And this:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)


Why did our Society establish a publishing partnership in the People’s Republic of China?

Without Beijing even uttering a critical word,
MGM is changing the villians in its ‘Red Dawn’ remake
from Chinese to North Korean.
It’s all about maintaining access
to the Asian superpower’s lucrative box office.

By Ben Fritz and John Horn, Los Angeles Times
March 16, 2011

Lea Thompson in the 1984 version of "Red Dawn," (via the Kobal Collection & the Los Angeles Times)

China has become such an important market for U.S. entertainment companies that one studio has taken the extraordinary step of digitally altering a film to excise bad guys from the Communist nation lest the leadership in Beijing be offended.

When MGM decided a few years ago to remake “Red Dawn,” a 1984 Cold War drama about a bunch of American farm kids repelling a Soviet invasion, the studio needed new villains, since the U.S.S.R. had collapsed in 1991. The producers substituted Chinese aggressors for the Soviets and filmed the movie in Michigan in 2009. But potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business with the rising Asian superpower, one of the fastest-growing and potentially most lucrative markets for American movies, not to mention other U.S. products.

As a result, the filmmakers now are digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols from “Red Dawn,” substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.

The changes illustrate just how much sway China’s government has in the global entertainment industry, even without uttering a word of official protest. …

Read the whole thing here.

Ha Jin

That story sounds painfully familiar: In 2007, Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic, killed Ha Jin’s story about censorship in China — just days before NGS executives flew to Beijing to celebrate our Society’s new publishing partnership with the People’s Republic of China.

Familiar, yes (especially to regular readers of Society Matters) — but there’s one critical difference between MGM and NGS.

MGM’s executives must provide a financial return to the company’s investors. If we don’t do business in China, the CEO of MGM could justifiably say, then our investors will abandon us for other companies that will do what’s necessary to access China’s massive market. We must go to China because we have no other choice.       

But the National Geographic Society does have a choice. There are no stockholders pounding the table at NGS, demanding a return on their investment. These is no labor union demanding higher wages for its workers. There is no membership group calling for the Society — a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization — to keep expanding. There is no private foundation running the show from behind the scenes.

There’s just John Fahey — our Society’s Chairman and CEO — and the 20 people who serve on National Geographic’s Board of Trustees. (The list at nationalgeographic.com is out of date, so here’s our up-to-date version.) They, and they alone, enjoy the enormous luxury of having a choice — to go to China, or not. They, and they alone, decide whether our Society and our society are better off beneath the anaconda in the chandelier.

Question is: Given what our Society had to sacrifice to get into China, why did we choose to go in the first place?


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