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,

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

In the War of Ideas, our Society has surrendered


What is “soft power”?


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


But all that has changed:

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.

Who are our Society’s heroes?

Words of wisdom from Nicholas Kristof, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and the winner of the George Polk Award, the Overseas Press Club award, the Michael Kelly award, the Online News Association award, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors award:

Nicholas Kristof Facebook Liu Xiaobo

John Fahey National Geographic

NGS CEO John Fahey

Chris Johns

Editor in Chief, National Geographic magazine

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)

James Cameron on China

James Cameron, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence

Rupert Murdoch laughs

We can do so much better than this.

Remembering Tiananmen

Today is the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests,
and the suppression and slaughter of democracy activists
by the Chinese government:

Once, we did remember this tragedy
(from NGM July 1991) :

But not anymore:
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)

James Cameron, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence

James Cameron, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence

John Fahey National Geographic


Egyptians “need a strong dictator”

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Emeritus Zahi Hawass
shows his true colors, yet again:Zahi-Hawass-Smithsonian-Fall-RiseRead the whole thing here.


More Zahi Hawass Hijinks can be found here.

Here comes our Society’s new membership platform

{ click to enlarge }Catherine_Karnow_we_are_explorers_email

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your warm welcome. I’m delighted to be part of the National Geographic Society’s team of explorers, and honored to be considered a colleague of yours.

As I looked through your body of work, I was especially impressed by this social documentary project:

The Agent Orange story is obviously one that’s of great importance to you. My particular interest is the oppression of political dissidents in China. I’ve blogged about it quite a bit here. And as you probably know, National Geographic magazine once took subjects like freedom and human rights very seriously.

I’d like to share my work with other Society members who have joined our new community of digital explorers.

How might I do this? Where may I post my work on the NGS website? How can I get in touch with other Society members who also care about human rights, freedom, and democracy? Does the NGS site have tools that enable people to find one another based on common interests? And how can we take these virtual communities that are beginning to form and bring them alive in real life?

Because I firmly believe in what you say in your message (above): “Working together, we can discover more and make a bigger difference.” (I said very much the same thing back in 2009.)

Looking forward to hearing from you — and to working with you.

all the best,

Fidelity to what makes us a society


From President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address:

Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.

For more than two hundred years, we have. … 

 We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. …

You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.

You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.

Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom. …

 In other words: Join The Adventure

(Based on the video teaser for National Geographic’s Great Migrations.)

John Fahey National Geographic

Watch our Society look the other way


Read the whole thing here.


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

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

Read about Chris Johns’ firm belief in our Society’s lack of “agenda” here.


John Fahey National Geographic

The waning power of The Brand

When John Fahey arrived at National Geographic in the mid-1990s, he spoke frequently and with great conviction about the power of the National Geographic Brand. Protect the brand… leverage the brand… capitalize on our brand equity… the word has been the cornerstone of his strategic plan for our Society for more than 15 years.

So it was a great surprise to read this story — and this quote from John:


So much for the primacy of The Brand.

The good news is: John is right. And the question he asks is critical: What is National Geographic trying to bring that is unique?

The answer can’t be “good stories” or “great science journalism” or even “outstanding photography” because all those things can be found all over the web, in enormous quantity, for free.

The answer can’t be our history of exploration because that doesn’t speak to our present — or future.

And the answer can’t be expeditions such as James Cameron’s recent deep-sea dive because (a) it revealed nothing much that was new, (b) we can’t afford to launch such expeditions often enough to create profitable content, and (c) James Cameron is an embarrassment.

But here’s a viable and compelling adventure story upon which we can build a future: For 125 years, National Geographic has told the story of the West meeting the world — and it’s a drama that’s still underway. Perhaps the story’s most exciting element is that we — the citizens of free, open, and democratic societies — are both observers and participants. We’re not simply watching The Democracy Story unfold, we’re living it. We’re creating it. We all have a role to play, and each one of us has been blessed with a speaking part.

Imagine, then, if John Fahey stood up in the pages of our Society’s official journal and said something like this:

The skills needed by good journalists — the ability to ask incisive questions; to evaluate information; to communicate clearly — are the same skills that empower citizens in free and open societies. National Geographic cares about these societies at least as much, if not more, than we care about the fate of Big Cats.

To that end, we will help equip, empower, and inspire the members of our Society with tools, training, and community support. We’ll serve as an international basecamp for those who want to Join The [Democratic] Adventure.

Our ultimate goal: To make The Democracy Story (and the National Geographic Society) a success for generations to come.

In other words: Take these ideas, which John shared during a recent and barely publicized event in Washington, DC…


… and make them the cornerstone of everything we do at the National Geographic Society.

(Based on the video teaser for National Geographic’s Great Migrations.)


Your thoughts, John?

John Fahey National Geographic

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