Betrayal without remorse

As the controversy surrounding Meet the Hutterites continues, 
this quote keeps popping to mind:

≡  Amazon link to The Journalist & The Murderer, by Janet Malcolm 

Earth Day @ 40: A Modest Proposal (re-re-redux)

Tomorrow is Earth Day.
But something tells us that NGS hasn’t embraced the following initiative,
which we originally posted here on November 10, 2009,
here on April 18, 2010
and here on April 13, 2011.
We’ve now sung this chorus four times in four years.
But that’s not a rut.
It’s a Society Matters tradition.

Let’s assume that National Geographic’s mission really is to inspire people to care about the planet. Let’s also assume that the Society’s great photography and videos are the means to that end, but not the end itself. In other words: A picture of a cheetah pales in significance to the cheetah itself. If you agree, then consider this…

Imagine if our Society spearheaded a new, and very inexpensive, global initiative that would culiminate on April 22, 2010 — the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. We call it Media Blackout. It’s a campaign to recruit millions of people to set aside one day when all of us, in unison, will turn off the relentless media feed that consumes us. One day when we’ll shut off our computers, Blackberries, cell phones, iPods, TVs, Slingboxes, and any other electronic devices that mediate our world. One small step for you… one giant leap off the media grid for mankind. (Why check your email if no one is online to send you any?)

For NGS, that would mean the Society’s cable channel and web sites would go dark. If you stopped by, all you’d see for 24 hours is a one-line message:

Seize the day… and see you tomorrow.

Yes, the Society would lose one day of advertising revenue from TV and the web. But consider the payback: While every other cable channel and web site kept churning out the same old stuff, National Geographic would be sending a quiet, yet powerful message: On Earth Day, go see the Earth because even we’ll admit that our photographs and videos are a pale representation of the real thing.

Reality_letdown_popoutWhy do this? Because although some people claim that technology helps connect us to the real world, it often encourages us to disengage instead. Think of how we often retreat into our own iGizmo-enabled bubbles when we’re out in public. Or of massive time-sucks like Facebook. Or online gaming. Or consider this magazine advertisement for a high-definition TV (at right). Reality: What a letdown. … A letdown? Really??

While Media Blackout would culminate with all of us joining a mass media exodus for a day, the project would begin months earlier on National Geographic’s web site. We’d put up a blog… interviews and guest essays… resources… a discussion forum… and, most important, tools to help people connect, face to face, with other folks in their communities to coordinate whatever activities they might choose to pursue together during the blackout. The Society could become the on-line umbrella under which people would gather to coordinate the day’s events.

At a time when media companies are panicked because they have no viable business model “going forward,” what better way for National Geographic to say: In the end, we’re not a media company, but a Society instead.

A few years ago, Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation wrote:

We’re moving from a time when the paradigm of journalism was, you shine the light, and people will see, to a time when we’re living in a world that’s just full of bright light all the time. Now we have to get people’s attention by giving them some kind of sunglasses so they can see.

For more than a century, National Geographic has provided the magic glasses to help people see the world and all that is in it. But now, overwhelmed by that “bright light all the time,” National Geographic’s Media Blackout would provide the magic (sun)glasses to help people get out and appreciate the world — rather than encouraging them to sit at home in their Barcaloungers and ogle pictures of the world.

Because as we’ve discussed before: This isn’t a woman — it’s just a collection of colored pixels on your computer screen.



Tomorrow, Society Matters will go dark for the entire day.
Because as editors like to say: Show, don’t tell.

What should National Geographic support that’s global, engaging, adventurous, youth-focused, media-centric, and far more hopeful & sustainable than a Society-wide initiative to protect Big Cats?


“A free and democratic society begins
with a free and fair press.”

Anne Medley,
who has taught journalism at the University of Montana,
the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute,

 the Rocky Mountain School of Photography,
and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 


John Fahey National Geographic

Persecuted Christians in China: Does our Society care?

Let’s say you’re a journalist in China who is working on a story about Christians who worship in underground churches. This is the official response you can expect:

(The reporter here is Stephen McDonell of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.)

Now let’s say you’re a journalist in China who wants to do stories about cheetahs and lovely landscapes. This is the official response you can expect:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson shake hands with our new publishing partners in Beijing (2007).


Dear John,
Do you believe freedom of religion in China is important
to our society — and our Society?

If so, why does the National Geographic Society’s official journal ignore the subject?
If not, why not?

No, Chris, it isn’t.

“The killer app is information.”

Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic,
quoting former NGM Director of Photography David Griffin
(who is no longer on the Magazine staff)

That’s nonsense, Chris. Information is a killer app for Wikipedia. Or the Oxford English Dictionary. Or the Library of Congress. But for NGS? Our killer app was (and still can be) a way of seeing the world that imbued our lives with a sense of adventure. National Geographic once was produced by people who knew who they were, and who wrote from within those beliefs.

The Magazine is the official journal — not the official journalism — of our Society; we pray that Chris Johns (and John Fahey) will soon grasp the difference.

But don’t listen to us. Listen instead to Barry Lopez. He’s a recipient of the National Book Award, the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the John Hay Medal, Guggenheim, Lannan, and National Science Foundation fellowships, Pushcart Prizes in fiction and nonfiction, and other honors. In 2004 he was elected a Fellow of The Explorers Club. In 2007, he became a National Geographic contributing writer, but later quietly disappeared from the Magazine’s masthead.

Here’s Mr. Lopez from the introduction to his book, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory:

… Once I was asked by a seatmate on a trans-Pacific flight, a man who took the liberty of glancing repeatedly at the correspondence in my lap, what instruction he should give his fifteen-year-old daughter, who wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know how to answer him, but before I could think I heard myself saying, “Tell your daughter three things.”

Barry Lopez

Tell her to read, I said. Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she’s reading to be trash. No one can fathom what happens between a human being and written language. She may be paying attention to things in the words beyond anyone else’s comprehension, things that feed her curiosity, her singular heart and mind. Tell her to read classics like The Odyssey. They’ve been around a long time because the patterns in them have proved endlessly useful, and, to borrow Evan Connell’s observation, with a good book you never touch bottom. But warn your daughter that ideas of heroism, of love, of human duty and devotion that women have been writing about for centuries will not be available to her in this form. To find these voices she will have to search. When, on her own, she begins to ask, make her a present of George Eliot, or the travel writing of Alexandra David-Neel, or To The Lighthouse.

Second, I said, tell your daughter that she can learn a great deal about writing by reading and by studying books about grammar and the organizaton of ideas, but that if she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. If her prose doesn’t come out of her belief, whatever that proves to be, she will only be passing along information, of which we are in no great need. So help her discover what she means. [emphasis added]

Finally, I said, tell your daughter to get out of town, and help her do that. I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to  live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.

Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar. Every writer, I told him, will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these are three I trust.

≡  iPad photo via

NGT & Adelstein reach “some kind of agreement”

May 10, 2011, 10:50pm
by Eriq Gardner

National Geographic Channel was originally scheduled to air a documentary on the Japanese mafia tonight. But the network pulled the show, Inside the Yakuza, after being sued by an American journalist who claimed the airing of the program could “literally be a matter of life or death” for anybody who worked on it. The network says, however, that it is standing behind the documentary and intends to soon announce a new scheduling date.

Late last week, the parties came to some kind of agreement. The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice, but neither party will disclose the nature of the resolution.

A spokesperson for the network, though, says that the show will air at a new time, and without commenting on whether the show has now been modified. The statement reads: “National Geographic Television stands behind its program on the Yakuza. We have only one standard for our documentary productions and that is factually accurate programs. For the production of this program, NGT has acted according to the highest ethical and journalistic standards.”

Read the whole thing here.

We’re delighted that the parties came to “some kind of agreement,” especially if this means Mr. Adelstein’s life is no longer in danger.

But the resolution raises as many questions as it answers.

(See our earlier coverage here.)

“All roads now lead to Andy Carvin”

By Ian Katz, Monday 14 March 2011

Andy Carvin is getting a little sick of talking about which verb best describes what he does. “It’s somewhere between reporting and collaborative network journalism, and George Plimpton-like oral history, except that I’m doing it in real time in 140 characters. I don’t know what to call that and I don’t care as long as people don’t waste my time trying to give it a name.”

Andy Carvin

Whatever Carvin’s particular brand of news gathering should be called, it has made him a must-read source on the Arab uprisings – and possibly the most talked about person at SXSW. “All roads now lead to Andy Carvin,” declared media critic Jeff Jarvis at a discussion on the future of news.

Ever since the start of the Tunisian uprising in December 2010, Carvin has been ignoring his day job as a strategist for National Public Radio and serving as a one-man broadcast channel-cum-newswire on events in the Middle East. A veteran of social media who used Twitter to factcheck the 2008 presidential election, he began retweeting testimonies, pictures and video from the protests in Tunisia – then Egypt and Libya.

Although Carvin had a network of blogger contacts in the region whom he used to check information being tweeted, what marks him out is his willingness to retweet unverified material and ask his followers for help to establish its accuracy. “I admit that I don’t know the answer to things and see users as potential experts and eyewitnesses. In some ways what I’m doing is not that different from a broadcast host doing a breaking live story with a producer in one ear, talking to pundits and all the while anchoring the coverage, but rather than producers I have followers.” …

Follow acarvin on Twitter

Who at National Geographic is covering the disaster in Japan, and reporting on it Andy Carvin-style? No one, which is no surprise. Andy’s approach is new.

But here’s an idea: Next time a natural disaster strikes, why couldn’t someone at NGM follow Andy’s lead? One staffer could take on the assignment — Dennis Dimick (Executive Editor, Environment), or Robert Kunzig (Senior Editor, Environment), or Jamie Schreeve (Executive Editor, Science). Or maybe Robert Michael Murray (NG VP for Social Media).

By crowdsourcing the coverage via Twitter and other social platforms, National Geographic could engage a sliver of its huge global audience — hundreds of millions of people strong — to create something new and valuable.

Otherwise, National Geographic and its dwindling staff will be forced to take superficial, unsatisfying swipes at major events like the Japanese tsunami, for which we’re posting a handful of photos from AFP/Gettyreplaying old TV specials about tsunamis, and thus far doing little else. That’s sad, especially since covering natural disasters was once a National Geographic specialty.

Andy Carvin, and an increasing number of reporters who are not afraid of the people formerly known as the audience, are building new tools, new relationships, new communities, and a new kind of journalism.

So, too, can the National Geographic Society.

≡  Photo of Andy Carvin via

Survival tip for reporters in China

He must have read this post.


Dear John: Please help avert a potential disaster

To: John Fahey, NGS CEO
Re: National Geographic’s scheduled documentary on the Japanese mafia

When people risk their lives to help
the National Geographic Society,
should our Society help them in return?

We ask because National Geographic Television is scheduled to release a new documentary about the Yakuza (aka the Japanese mafia). Unfortunately, the current version, titled Gangland Tokyo, might endanger the lives of people who helped make the film possible.

That warning comes from Jake Adelstein, who was hired by National Geographic Television (NGT) as an expert consultant for the film, but who recently resigned from the project in protest. Based on Mr. Adelstein’s thumbnail bio, he knows about what he speaks: Adelstein was the first American to be hired by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, and is the only American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club. He’s also the author of Tokyo Vice (right), which Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, called “a deeply thought-provoking book: equal parts cultural exposé, true crime, and hard-boiled noir.”

What is the potential danger of NGT’s current version of Gangland Tokyo? Here’s Mr. Adelstein:

I have been working as a consultant on a National Geographic Television documentary on the yakuza since the summer of last year. I resigned on February 24th. I also asked that my name be removed from the program, Gangland Tokyo.

I did this for two reasons. I was not given full access to the materials that would allow me to verify the factual accuracy of the program and thus unable to do my job properly. There are also issues of the program being seen as yarase (やらせ).  Since I can’t verify the factual accuracy, taking the money and continuing would be perfidious. Also, after seeing a rough cut of the program, I now have serious concerns about the safety of all Americans and Japanese sources, friends, and the staff of National Geographic Channel Japan who are involved with this program. There is a chance that the yakuza that have been betrayed by NGT will use violence against those residing in Japan to express their anger. I am even concerned about the safety of the yakuza that agreed to appear in the documentary, probably under false pretenses and false promises. They will face retaliation from their superiors if the program is aired as it is now. Yakuza are people too, a small minority of them are good people in their own right, and once they cooperate with the program, they are also sources. And sources have to be protected. That is the good faith that is demanded in responsible journalism.

In response to these concerns, which Mr. Adelstein shared with the producers weeks before he resigned, National Geographic Television wrote:

“Jake, this is not a misunderstanding of the nature of journalism. This is a misunderstanding regarding your role as a consultant to the program. National Geographic never intended for you, personally, to fact check the entire program, line by line. Rather, you were hired for your expertise on the subject matter and your consultation was to assure the general accuracy of the subject in the program.” [emphasis added]


NGT to Mr. Adelstein, 1 February 2011

Problem is, the contract signed by Mr. Adelstein and NGT (below) says something very different:

“Your consultation support shall address the factual accuracy of the Program.” [emphasis added]

Contract between NGT & Jake Adelstein

NGT’s shifting of gears, and the difference between general and factual accuracy, raises several questions:

1. What  is “general accuracy”? Exactly how would someone check it?

2. How can a documentary film be “generally accurate” without being “factually accurate”?

3. The letter from NGT (top) also says: “…you only need to opine on the Program as presented in its final form.” Opine? As in “opinion”? The contract requires Mr. Adelstein, who was hired as an expert, to check the facts.

4. Why has National Geographic changed the way it describes Mr. Adelstein’s responsibilities?

What’s especially troubling is that Mr. Adelstein evidently agreed to work on this project because he trusted National Geographic:

To avoid any ambiguity, Mr. Adelstein put his money where his mouth is: He has reportedly returned his consultant’s fee of $6,000. On the memo line of his check to NGT (postdated to April), we’re told he wrote: “a clear conscience.”

But in the end, John, all of this — the contract, the correspondence, the legal interpretations, the check, the growing online buzz, and our Society’s reputation —  doesn’t matter nearly much as the lives at stake. For a host of reasons, NGT’s attempt to document the Yakuza has gone awry. Members of the Yakuza who never should have been interviewed — per Mr. Adelstein’s expert instructions — were put on camera anyway; now these people realize they’re in danger, and don’t want to appear in the film at all.

Put another way: This documentary is no longer about taking viewers inside the Yakuza. It’s no longer about exposing a criminal subculture. It’s not about them. It’s about us. It’s about our willingness to adhere to journalistic standards that have long been a hallmark of National Geographic — not because the standards boost TV ratings (or please our friends at News Corp), but because the standards bolster our Society’s reputation and they protect people’s lives.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t melodrama. The risks here are very real, according to this internal National Geographic email:

Which brings us back to the question we posed to you at the top:

When people risk their lives to help
the National Geographic Society,

should our Society help them in return?

Will you help them?

We sincerely hope you find your voice, and find a way to do the right thing.

John rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
But we’re asking for one — partly to hear his plans for this NG documentary —
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 by one.
(It’s under the Facebook widget in the right sidebar.)

“Intimidation of journalists is the classic response”

Foreign journalists were detained by Chinese policemen on a street leading to a designated demonstration site in Shanghai on Sunday. (from The New York Times)

By Sharon LaFraniere and Edward Wong
The New York Times
Published March 6, 2011

BEIJING — Western journalists have lately been tolerated in China, if grudgingly, but the spread of revolution in the Middle East has prompted the authorities here to adopt a more familiar tack: suddenly, foreign reporters are being tracked and detained in the same manner — though hardly as roughly — as political dissidents.

On Sunday, about a dozen European and Japanese journalists in Shanghai were herded into an underground bunkerlike room and kept for two hours after they sought to monitor the response to calls on an anonymous Internet site for Chinese citizens to conduct a “strolling” protest against the government outside the Peace Cinema, near Peace Square in Shanghai.

…  David Bandurski, an analyst at the China Media Project of the University of Hong Kong, said: “They have gone into control mode once again. What we are seeing now, in the short term, is China is closing in on itself, because it doesn’t have another answer or response.”

He added: “Intimidation of journalists is the classic response.” …

Such news always reminds us of this scene and this nagging question: Why did our Society make this deal?

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson of NGS clink glasses with our new partners in Beijing. (2007)

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