Anonymous caller: “You should be arrested & deported”

To: John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of National Geographic
Re: “Subtle (and not-so-subtle) intimidation”

Last month, Dr. Ian Hancock wrote you a letter in which he described the anonymous threats he and his family have received following his public criticism of American Gypsies, a new series on the National Geographic Channel.

While Dr. Hancock patiently awaits your response, he is forced to deal with more anonymous, abusive, and intimidating phone calls like this one, which he recently received on his office answering machine (warning: crude language):

This no doubt makes your stomach churn, especially given the inspiring speech you recently delivered as co-chair for the 2012 First Amendment Awards presented by the Reporters Commitee for Freedom of the Press:

Speaking of “intimidation” by those who “seek to deny that right” to people “right here at home,” here again is the sort of abuse Dr. Hancock confronts for respectfully criticizing the actions of… well, John, of the Society you lead:

(Don’t confuse this case of thuggery with a different anonymous bully who recently called Dr. Hancock’s office and threatened: “You come after my family, I’m coming after yours.”)

This isn’t happening in some far-away country, John. It’s taking place right here at home, in your own backyard.

What better way to demonstrate your unflinching commitment to the First Amendment than to publicly express our Society’s — and our society’s — solidarity with Dr. Hancock?

Why do wild animals matter more than “gypsies”?

Last month, Dr. Ian Hancock and other senior members of the Romani community lodged a formal protest with John Fahey and National Geographic’s Board of Trustees about American Gypsies, a new series on the National Geographic Channel.

“Your program is racist, slanderous, degrading, and possibly illegal,” Dr. Hancock wrote to Mr. Fahey, Chairman & CEO of National Geographic. “Stop making money by persecuting my people.”

Here is John Fahey’s response:


For contrast, consider the uproar last week over plans for a new show on the National Geographic Channel, which was to feature hunter Melissa Bachman:

 These online protests shamed National Geographic into removing Ms. Bachman from the program:


John Fahey National Geographic

Dear John,
 Why do animal rights matter here,
 but human rights don’t?

Dear Ai Weiwei: Yes, we know it. But your mission is no longer ours. Sincerely, The National Geographic Society

James Cameron, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence

Tim Kelly, President of the National Geographic Society

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

 John Fahey National Geographic

≡  Ai Weiwei graphic from Beware of Images
≡  James Cameron quote from The New York Times
≡  Tim Kelly quote from The Hollywood Reporter
≡  Chris Johns & Terry Adamson cartoon & imagined quotes by Society Matters

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)


Whose side are we on?

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


≡ Desmond Tutu quote & graphic via The Idealist

What a beautiful use of the Yellow Rectangle

Could the people of China be telling us something?

Screen grab from today’s TimesCast

The secret to National Geographic’s success

To: John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society
Re: The problem with your Green strategy

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, you said:

Precisely. But this isn’t news, John. What is news is your decision to adopt a mission statement — to inspire people to care about the planet — that focuses on a subject that isn’t of interest to many readers of National Geographic.

You’ve built an international media strategy around a subject that’s politically palatable to, say, the gatekeepers in China (who love cheetahs). Unfortunately, the current members of the Society — the people who are already paying to receive the Magazine — are bored by what you’re publishing. In fact, many of them hate it.

What’s the option? Here’s a lesson from our Society’s history, which rings as true today as it did in the 1960s:

With Vosburgh and Mel Payne running National Geographic, the semi-retired Melville Grosvenor had time to enjoy his second family. He and Anne bundled their teenage son, Eddie, and their young daughter, Sara, on marathon voyages of the White Mist, a yawl that became a familiar fixture in National Geographic. Readers were treated to Chairman Melville’s lengthy articles in the Greek isles, the Canadian coast, and other vacation spots, thoroughly and ably documented with photographs by Eddie, the clan’s newest photographic talent. Vosburgh rearranged whole issues to accommodate these sea stories, but he balked at delaying an article on the solar system to make room for a White Mist voyage up the Hudson to the St. Lawrence River.

“I’ll need at least 55 pages,” Melville told Vosburgh.

“But Melville, that’s more than we’re giving the whole solar system,” said Vosburgh.

“Yes,” said Melville, “but there are no people out there.”

– from Explorers House, by Robert M. Poole, p. 256

People. Not “the planet[s].” 

Which means our Society should be doing much less of this:

And much more of this:

From "China's Youth Wait for Tomorrow," National Geographic magazine, July 1991

The downside to focusing on freedom and democracy: The gatekeepers in China will probably revoke our license to publish there.

The upside: Millions of other people will (re) discover the Society — and (re) join the adventure.

Stop the insanity (part 2)

Our Society is attempting to build a digital publishing business
around manufactured “dramas” such as this:

Meanwhile, our Society remains silent
about an actual life-and-death drama such as this:

From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:

Over the years, the extraordinary journey of Chen Guangcheng has been an inspiration, a protest, and, at times, a dark farce. Now, through his own sheer will, his life has come to symbolize, for China and the United States, an opportunity.

Sometime in the last few days, Chen slipped out of the stone farmhouse on the rural plains of Shandong province where he has been held under house arrest, with his family, off and on since 2005. … He is now believed to be under the protection of U.S. diplomats.  …

To the United States, he has presented a related question. What do a blind peasant lawyer and the privileged senior Party police boss Wang Lijun—who fled to the U.S. consulate in February—have in common? When their system failed them, each man, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, sought protection from the Americans. We should be proud of that.

Yet our Society isn’t proud. It is silent.
Because Chen Guangcheng is living a story
that no longer interests our Society’s executives: 

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

Our Society — and our society — deserve far better than this.

Chris Johns & “the great progress”

Please read the whole story.
The details of Ni Yulan’s case are absolutely appalling.  


Chris Johns & Terry Adamson stand tall with our new publishing partners in the People’s Republic of China (2007).

How does Editor Chris Johns think about China? Here’s an excerpt from an interview he gave Christine Lu in 2008:

Christine Lu

Christine Lu: Can you tell us what your specific interest in China has been on a personal level?

Chris Johns: Well, I was a staff photographer at National Geographic magazine and [for] one of my early assignments in the early ‘80s … I went to China for about four months on this fascinating story on protein and the soybean and Chinese culture. I went over there and could not get enough of China. That trip really changed the way I look at culture and look at the world. So I was very keen to get back to China after the great progress, the great moves forward they’ve made, and let our readers know how important China is to their lives.

Christine Lu: … In regards to how fast China has changed, so you must be witness when you go back these days to some really big contrasts from when you first got there.

Chris Johns: Oh, absolutely, Christine. When I was there in early ‘80s, you had to use a separate currency. You could only stay in a small selection of hotels. There were only selected places that you could shop. What was really interesting was there was still the shadow of the Cultural Revolution then. There were many people who were very reticent to speak to a journalist or speak to a Westerner at all. And of course now there’s this great thirst to reach out and to move forward. I have to say that makes for an exciting time for China and an exciting time for all of us.


Ni Yulan, in a wheelchair since a police beating, and her husband, Dong Jiqin, in 2010 outside a Beijing hotel where they lived.

≡ photo via New York Times: Andy Wong/Associated Press

“Democracy is not a spectator sport”

Welcome to readers of the ALASKA DISPATCH.
If what you’re seeing raises questions for you,
please consider encouraging
John Fahey, Chairman and CEO of National Geographic,
to share some answers by granting us an interview.
You can give him that gentle nudge by clicking “Recommend,” below.

Don’t have a Facebook account? Or prefer not to show your face? That’s okay.
Just email me — alan [at] societymatters [dot] org — and
I’ll raise our Anonymous But Curious tally — 220+ people & counting.
(It’s under the Facebook widget in the right sidebar.)


Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

National Geographic once understood Mr. Booker’s point.
In a time of crisis,
National Geographic asked all of us to participate.

National Geographic once featured stories
about the people who helped launch
our democratic adventure.

NGM, September 1987

National Geographic once was proud to celebrate
the values that make us a nation.

NGM, July 1986


Today, our Society asks us to share kitty pictures.

To buy air freshener…

… and coffee beans.

Our Society lends its good name
to a television channel (majority-owned by News Corp)
that serves up shows like this:

In which a man falls in love with a sex doll....

What happened?

Why has our Society, under John Fahey’s leadership,
stopped addressing us as citizens
and started treating us like customers?

Here’s a hint:

You can’t do business in China
if you insist on talking about
James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and democracy.

So, we changed our story.

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

This is tragic and short-sighted.
But it doesn’t have to be the end of the story….

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society

Dear John: Let’s Talk

John rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
But we’re asking for one — and you can help by clicking “Recommend,” below.

Don’t have a Facebook account? Or prefer not to show your face? That’s okay.
Just email me — alan [at] societymatters [dot] org — and
I’ll raise our Anonymous But Curious tally — 220+ people & counting.
(It’s under the Facebook widget in the right sidebar.)



≡ This is a modified encore presentation of An Urgent and Demanding Participatory Endeavor, which we posted earlier this year.

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