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…

Letters-legal-and-photos

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:  

John_Fahey_Reporters_Committee_First_Amendment_speech

I couldn’t agree more.

all the best,
Alan

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:

Mystery-of-Missing-Story-China-Ha-Jin

{ 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.

China-confessions-on-TV-WaPo

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

Report: NGS under criminal investigation

National-Geographic-bribery-probe-vocativ

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 }

Tut-tut-tweets-Zahi-Hawass-bribery-NGS-1

Tut-tut-tweets-Zahi-Hawass-bribery-NGS-2

 

Tut-tut-tweets-Zahi-Hawass-bribery-NGS-3

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:

AAM-circulation-magazines-top-25-June-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?

Gigaom-tablet-magazines-failure

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

In the War of Ideas, our Society has surrendered

Economist-new-face-of-terror-soft-power

What is “soft power”?

Soft-Power-book-cover-quote

Not long ago, the National Geographic Society was a
global showcase of soft power and Western values:

Elephant-in-the-room-clip

But all that has changed:
UAE-MEDIA-NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC-ARABIC

Chris Johns and Terry Adamson celebrate the launch of National Geographic’s Arabic edition in 2010. What a far cry this is from the National Geographic Society that once gave maps to Gen. Eisenhower to help Allied forces defeat the Nazis.

Does this mean National Geographic is responsible
for the resurgence of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda?
Of course not.
But does it mean that National Geographic has surrendered
in what The Economist calls the “most important battle of all, that of ideas”?
It sure does.

History isn’t over

Which begs the question:
Which side of history are we on?

From National Geographic’s archival Tumblr:

China NatGeoMag balloons

Twitter-Alan-reply-LiuXiaobo-NatGeoMag

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)

The Damage

Pierre-Omidyar-Twitter-censorship

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.

Meanwhile:

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:

NatGeo-Books-China-man-balloon-Twitter

 

I’m sorry… what was the question, again?

 

Remembering Bob Gilka (1916-2013)

Bob Gilka

Bob Gilka in 2007

From the National Press Photographers Association:

ARLINGTON, VA (June 25, 2013) – Robert E. Gilka, a newspaper photographer and editor who was a mentor to legions of photographers and who was the director of photography for National Geographic Magazine for more than 27 years, died today.

Gilka was 96 and in hospice care in Arlington, VA, photojournalist Bruce Dale said, and he was battling with his third round of pneumonia this year when he peacefully passed at 4:40 a.m.

“Bob was a father figure to me, and to many of us who may not have had a father,” Dale told News Photographer magazine today. “He dressed us down when we needed it, but he always stuck up for his staff. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to defend his photographers.”

“The halls and offices of National Geographic are buzzing with Bob Gilka stories,” Chris Johns told News Photographer magazine today. Johns, who was only 28 when he was named the Newspaper Photographer of the Year, and who only three weeks ago was promoted to Geographic’s editor in chief and executive vice president, probably knew Gilka as well as anyone over the decades.

“There is laughter and there are tears because Bob touched so many lives in remarkable ways. He was an honest, direct, no-nonsense gentleman we never wanted to disappoint. He didn’t gush and go on and on about our work, but we knew he cared deeply about us and believed in the work we were doing. He encouraged us, set standards of excellence and instilled in us the desire to become better photographers and editors. And, most importantly, he inspired us to grow in all aspects of our lives. Bob made me want to become a better son, husband, father, colleague and friend. I speak for many when I say how truly grateful we are to have known Bob and worked for him.” …

Read more here.

_____
≡ photo by Bruce Dale via Wikimedia Commons

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