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

Will people still pay for cheetah pictures?

We’ll soon find out.

Mashable NG pay modelRead the whole thing here

 

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

Du Bin Chinese filmmaker disappears

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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:

Who is a journalist?

The guy who shot this video:

On history, journalism, and the future of our Society

Jan Adkins is an illustrator, storyteller, explainer, sailor, chef, tennis player, and the main man at Jan Adkins Studio. He formerly served as the associate art director for National Geographic magazine. (Jan is also a member of our advisory board.) 

Jan Adkins

Jan Adkins

Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor [who became the first full-time editor of National Geographic magazine in 1899, and who served as the Society’s helmsman for more than 50 years] was a man of his time, upright and honorable as far as the contemporary codes extended. One of his defined editorial principles was part of that “gentlemen’s” time: our coverage of distant places and cultures and nations was to focus strictly on positive aspects, never on criticism of evils, failures or abuses.

This was before World War I. His world was still a time of monarchs and empire. This was before we discovered that horror was not some distant threat and that monsters looked very much like normal folks. GHG’s view was simpler and less scary from his armchair than the world we see from our armchair. We’ve seen Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Joe McCarthy. We’ve seen the truth of Goya’s awful dictum: “The dream of reason produces monsters.” We’ve even seen the evil in ourselves.

GHG could, with a clear conscience, assume that reason among nations would prevail, that good guys directed the great powers, and that there was no reason to insult anyone. Why rock the boat and be seen as a potential critic? Why limit our scope?

The leader of a modern Society honestly dedicated to exploration and to the truth can’t afford GHG’s “make nice” focus. In the flogging sense, “the cat is out of the bag:” the lash and injustice of some regimes and situations is now part of the open world. Realpolitik insists that even the good guys get nasty, sometimes. Our charter is to see the real world and report the truth. Did GHG lie? Not by the standards of his polite and hopeful time; he was a conservative, logical gentleman and certainly not a firebrand.

In the podcast, Alan makes an hypothetical reply, what he thinks the Society’s board might say to Dan Pollatta’s encouragement to “live by your truth.” It’s a reply that parrots GHG’s make-nice philosophy. It’s also the boardroom corporate approach: power creates it’s own morality.

How many of us feel that GHG would be disappointed in us if we DIDN’T change our charter and our approach? He was a journalist, a seeker who would have doped out the modern world with sharp logical tools. My sense is that GHG would quickly become less rosy and more inquisitive of motives.

The Society was cobbled together at the Cosmos Club by a group of extraordinary and influential gentlemen. Alas, we’re no longer a nation run by gentlemen. Far from it: our American culture is defined and controlled by lawyers. The “make nice” principle still applies but for more sinister reasons. The basic assumption of adversarial law is that a compromise is the answer to opposing views; I give a little, you give a little, we both settle. Lawyers carefully exclude moral feelings from negotiation. Law and politics are “the arts of the possible.”

For a journalist this is a violation of ethics. You don’t write a story that assumes both sides are wrong with some neutral, “right” space between their views. A reporter tries to determine what is right, what is the truth, what are the facts. As professional observers and chroniclers we aren’t permitted to compromise; we’re obligated to take a side, the side of truth.

What’s devilish and disturbing about the attitude of the National Geographic Channel is the insistence that we can’t “sell a product” with the truth. NGC asserts that its product isn’t marketable unless we jigger the facts and pump up the volume, script “candid” conversations, create situations of our own melodramatic design and casually slander subjects without regard to their quaint moral structures. This is admission of failure before the fact, and it’s a cynical judgment of the viewing public as mindless sheep.

Toward the end of Bill Garrett’s tenure as editor in chief, The National Geographic Magazine began to feature articles that dealt with ticklish political subjects like heritage theft, genocide, cultural abuses, widespread abuse of children and women. Bill knew it was time for a bolder, more investigative mandate. Some regimes began to view us with suspicion. About time. I like to think GHG would have applauded the change. GHG’s grandson disagreed and the Society underwent a painful paroxysm of broken trust and ruthless pruning. The magazine returned to bland “travel” views avoiding controversy.

Truth is not always safe or comfortable. No doubt about it: the truth is dangerous stuff. It always demands risk. Boardrooms hate risk.

The Society could hide behind its credentials for years to come before its readers (no longer “members”) discover that the National Geographic Society is little more than a hired façade for pretty “content,” no longer a society of risk, exploration and inquiry. Where is the Society now? It’s time to review our principles and our profession, and to decide if the truth is marketable.

Watch our Society look the other way

NYT_oped_Dim_Hopes_for_free_press_China

Read the whole thing here.

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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.

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John Fahey National Geographic

What do Jill Abramson & Dean Baquet grasp that John Fahey & Chris Johns do not?

NYTimes_dismantles_environment_desk

 Read the whole thing here.

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:

John_Fahey_USAToday_good_story_trumps_great_brand

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…

John_Fahey_Reporters_Committee_First_Amendment_speech

… 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.)

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Your thoughts, John?

John Fahey National Geographic

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

{ Read the whole thing here. }
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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

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

Objective Nonsense (part 30)

Remember Chris Johns’ claim that National Geographic has “no agenda”? It was part of an Editor’s Note in which Chris insisted that in “a world of shrill voices and agendas, we at National Geographic are committed to an unbiased presentation of facts. … It’s what we’ve been doing for more than 120 years.”

In our ongoing rebuttal to Chris’s unsupportable claim, we give you: 

Read the whole thing here

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