The Company We Keep (part 2)

Security forces cleared Pearl Square of protesters on Wednesday in Manama, Bahrain. (via The New York Times)

Two-thousand Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, most of them from Saudi Arabia, entered Bahrain on Monday — ostensibly to provide security to government installations “threatened” by protestors. In fact, such a show of force, with more troops on the way, is an attempt by the Saudi-led GCC to stiffen the resolve of the ruling house in Bahrain to put down the democracy protests if need be with force….

The real reason for the establishment of the GCC in 1981 was not defense against external enemies threatening the security of GCC states but cooperation against domestic challenges to authoritarian regimes. Its main task was and continues to be coordination of internal security measures, including sharing of intelligence, aimed at controlling and suppressing the populations of member states in order to provide security to the autocratic monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The establishment of the GCC was in large measure a reaction on the part of the Gulf monarchies to the Iranian revolution of 1979 in which people’s power toppled the strongest autocracy in the neighborhood. The Arab autocracies of the Gulf did not want to share the Shah’s fate.

The members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In related news: Last year in the United Arab Emirates, National Geographic celebrated the launch of a new Arabic edition, which will be available in 15 countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. (Photo: AFP)

The Powers That Be in the GCC (and most other Arabic-speaking countries) would not have applauded or approved what you might call Geographic Classic. After all, authoritarian bullies may care about the planet, but they don’t care about human rights and democracy. Question is:

Does our Society care?

“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)

Bargaining With Autocrats

“When you see history, and you see it to be noble,
you have to respond….

Fouad Ajami

You have 360 million Arabs ruled by a handful of autocrats, mostly old, but some young, as in Jordan, Syria and Morocco. And eight of the Arab states practice torture on a regular basis. We know there are political prisons for the dissidents. We know there is massive economic failure, that the Arab world did not have economic growth since the ’80s, that tens of millions of Arabs live below the poverty line.

The young Arabs see the facts of their life, and many are eager to flee the Arab world, to London or Berlin or Oslo, and many of them leave. But this is their world and they have to make a stand in Cairo and Rabat and Tunis. They have to try to build a better public order for themselves. The pathologies of the Arab world are so deep, and these young people came to understand these pathologies. …

There is a certain level of security that comes from autocracies… There is stability there. But the bargain with an autocrat is never a good bargain.”

— Fouad Ajami, in Haaretz


Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate the launch of NGM-China in 2007 (left) and NGM-Arabic in 2010 (right)


Which side of history are we on?

Nick Kristof

“Bahrain is another Middle East domino wobbled by an angry youth — and it has struck back with volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets and even buckshot at completely peaceful protesters….

I hope that our cozy relations with those in power won’t dull our appreciation that history is more likely to side with protesters being shot with rubber bullets than with the regimes doing the shooting.”

— Nick Kristof, “Tunisia. Egypt. Bahrain?” in The New York Times, February 16, 2011


ABC’s Miguel Marquez Beaten in Bahrain


“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies,
but the silence of our friends.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.


CELEBRATING NGM'S NEW ARABIC EDITION (From left) Editor of National Geographic Chris Johns, Executive Vice President of National Geographic Terence Adamson, Emirati Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak al-Nahayan, Editor of National Geographic Al-Arabiya Mohammed al-Hammadi (Photo: AFP)

“An obligation to respond….”

President Barack Obama

“The people of Egypt have rights that are universal.  That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny.  These are human rights.  And the United States will stand up for them everywhere….

Around the world governments have an obligation to respond to their citizens.  That’s true here in the United States; that’s true in Asia; it is true in Europe; it is true in Africa; and it’s certainly true in the Arab world, where a new generation of citizens has the right to be heard.”

— President Barack Obama, January 28, 2011

We agree. But does National Geographic?

(Click on images below for more information.)

President Omar Bongo and conservationist Mike Fay

(From left) Editor of National Geographic Chris Johns, Executive Vice President of National Geographic Terence Adamson, Emirati Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak al-Nahayan, Editor of National Geographic Al-Arabiya Mohammed al-Hammadi (Photo: AFP)

The Bullies Who Rule Bahrain

For more on the crackdown in Bahrain, see today’s coverage from Global Voices.


FYI: Last year, the Kingdom of Bahrain became one of 15 nations where the new Arabic edition of National Geographic is available. Yes, the government bullies its own people, but at least the powers that be care deeply about cheetahs.

CELEBRATING NGM's NEW ARABIC EDITION (from left) Editor of National Geographic Chris Johns, Executive Vice President of National Geographic Terence Adamson, Emirati Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak al-Nahayan, Editor of National Geographic Al-Arabiya Mohammed al-Hammadi (Photo: AFP)

Chris Johns’ “great thirst” to “move forward”

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate with our new publishing partners in China. (2008)

From an interview with Editor Chris Johns about National Geographic‘s special issue (May 2008) devoted entirely to China:

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.


{ Read the entire article at Radio Free Asia. }

Enough with Pharaoh

Anti-Mubarak protest in Cairo (via AP)

We love this photo because it turns that famous George Santayana quote on its head:

Those who learn from history are blessed to not repeat it.

Egyptians are learning. They have intimate knowledge of Pharaohs, past and present, and they’ve had enough. The huddled masses in Cairo are yearning to breathe free.

What’s tragic is that National Geographic — which once celebrated democracy and human rights — now offers so little sustenance for the difficult journey ahead. Consider…

National Geographic keeps repeating this story
over & over again:

(At NGS, there’s never enough Pharaoh.)

By contrast,
National Geographic once told stories that celebrated democracy,
such as…

"Our Land Through Lincoln's Eyes," by Carolyn Bennett Patterson, National Geographic, February 1960

… but not anymore.

Evidently, Editor Chris Johns considers such subjects old-fashioned. Or parochial.
Or bad for business: Some of our international partners
don’t like it when we bring up democracy.
So, we don’t.

What about our Society’s Explorers-in-Residence?
Do any of them champion freedom and democracy?

National Geographic Society's Explorers-in-Residence

Stephen Ambrose

The only person in this group who enthusiastically celebrated The Democracy Story is historian Stephen Ambrose (above, bottom right; and, at right), who wrote biographies of U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, as well as the critically acclaimed Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Ambrose won the George Marshall Award, the Teddy Roosevelt Award, the Department of the Army Award for Distinguished Public Service, the Abraham Lincoln Literary Award, the Will Rogers Memorial Award, the Bob Hope Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, and the National Humanities Award. The U.S. Department of Defense awarded Ambrose their Medal for Distinguished Public Service. According to National Geographic:

It was Ambrose’s devotion to telling the stories of ordinary soldiers of World War II that defines his passion for history and his legacy. “I was ten years old when the war ended,” he was quoted as saying. “I thought the returning veterans were giants who had saved the world from barbarism. I still think so.”

Stephen Ambrose died in 2002. Since then, the National Geographic Society has

• launched 12 new local language editions of National Geographic magazine, including versions in Arabic, Russian, and Chinese;
• changed its mission statement, which now reads: To inspire people to care about the planet;
failed to appoint a new Explorer-in-Residence who might share Mr. Ambrose’s passion for American history and Western values.

Three questions for you, John Fahey:

1. Why don’t we have an Explorer-in-Residence who can recognize barbarism and call it by its proper name (as did Mr. Ambrose)?

2. Who at our Society will speak up to support the heroes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square who are struggling to escape the iron grip of Pharaoh? (Our Society’s man in Egypt — Explorer-in-Residence Zahi Hawassjust joined President Mubarak’s new cabinet, so we don’t expect to hear a peep out of him.)

3. Why are you unwilling to answer our questions?

John rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
But we’re asking for one — partly to hear his answers to these questions —
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.)

“You’ve got to change a bit….”

John Fahey comments on the future of non-profit organizations during a panel discussion last September in Washington, DC.

If you were willing to pay $39 for a ticket in September, you could have listened to John Fahey, CEO of National Geographic, and NPR’s Vivian Schiller “Discuss the Future” of non-profit (media) organizations. The event, sponsored by Bisnow, was moderated by Richard Newman, a lawyer who represents both NPR and NGS. (We’ve never seen John participate in a panel moderated by a journalist, but it’s good to see him stepping up on any stage, even when chaperoned by his attorney.)

Although no transcript is available, Bisnow posted a very brief summary, including this observation by John:

“The minute you go international you’ve got to change a bit so you resonate with the local audiences,” John says. For example, when National Geographic Magazine published a story about Barcelona, the Spanish language edition had to change the title to “An American Visits Barcelona.” … John tells us that ideally National Geographic will be viewed as a truly local organization in all parts of the world.

Some reactions:

•  The Barcelona anecdote is more than ten years old, and not a particularly enlightening one because…

•  Tweaking the title of a feature story is breathtakingly insignificant compared to how John has changed both our Magazine and our Society. To “go international,” to “resonate with the local audiences,” and to get into Russia and China, John had to engineer some major changes in the Magazine’s editorial focus. Exhibit A: The National Geographic story you’ll never get to read.

• The Arabic edition of NGM is distributed in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. It’s a trans-national magazine in a way that, say, NGM-Poland is not. How, then, will NGM-Arabic help the National Geographic Society be seen as a “truly local organization”?

NGM China launched in 2007.

• NGM’s local language partners are encouraged to produce some of their own content. But most local editions still rely on NGM headquarters to generate the bulk of the editorial. So, when Editor Chris Johns evaluates story proposals, he has to ask: Will this article appeal to readers in Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey… all the Arabic-speaking countries listed above… and a host of English-speaking countries. As a result, you end up with lots of critter, climate, and landscape stories, and none with a title like “Thomas Jefferson: Architect of Freedom.”

If John were a bit more forthcoming, we imagine him saying something like this:

… The minute you go international you’ve got to change a lot— especially when venturing beyond the Western world. You must absorb the local customs, beliefs, and values, and then reflect them back to the local market. You must embrace a particular kind of multiculturalism. You must satisfy your customers. In effect, you must become a publishing chameleon that can blend seamlessly and simultaneously into many different surroundings.

Such a dramatic makeover often requires bold steps. In National Geographic’s case, we’ve had to abandon some old ways, and embrace new ones. Let me give you an example….

July 1944

Years ago, National Geographic refused to publish stories about the Soviet Union. Why? Because during most of the Cold War, the Magazine’s editors were staunch anti-communists. During World War II, National Geographic actively promoted the sale of U.S. war bonds on the cover of the Magazine (right) because the editors had an agenda: Defeat fascism. For decades, NGM published stories with the word “Our” in the title — Our Armies of Mercy (May 1917, about the American Red Cross); Our Growing Interstate Highway System (February 1968); Our National Forests: Problems in Paradise (September 1982). That first-person-plural pronoun reflected the fact that National Geographic is the official journal of a Society which, back then, saw itself, its members, and the world in national, not international terms.

Most of all, the Magazine, from the 1940s to the 1980s, had a clear point of view — one that celebrated freedom and democracy.

Problem is, how can you export a Magazine like that to China? You can’t. So I began introducing some fundamental changes at NGS — but I did so gradually, so as not to alarm the natives.  [laughter] Among my innovations:

•  We now focus less on national geography, and more on the natural world — trees, critters, climate and such.

•  I crafted a new mission statement: Inspiring people to care about the planet.” That’s less national, more global. It also frames Society-wide initiatives such as our efforts to protect big cats. (We’ll leave the protection of free speech to others.)

Chris Johns

I picked Chris Johns, a wildlife photographer with virtually no management experience, to be the Magazine’s Editor. (I pay him more than $625,000 per year, which may seem like an exorbitant salary for an editor of a non-profit ink-on-paper magazine that’s dying. But I find the money encourages Chris to be more open-minded about the changes I’ve needed him to implement.)

•  I’m also working hard to eliminate the word “Society” from our nameplate and brand profile. Why? Because people don’t want to belong as much as they want to buy — DVDs, t-shirts, trips to New Zealand, luggage, bedroom furniture… whatever. Don’t think “membership”; think “retail.”

Put another way: If you see the world in national terms, then people are citizens who embrace different allegiances and values. That’s a tough world in which to scale up a media business. But if you see the world as a marketplace, then people are consumers who buy stuff.

These two identities — citizen & consumer — are not mutually exclusive, of course. But one of them creates a much bigger arena where we can sell our cheetah pictures.

My business challenge has been to identify a global common denominator that will help transform National Geographic into a profitable global brand.

My approach has been to focus on what people share (the planet) instead of on what makes people different (i.e., our values).

Unfortunately, there are two downsides to my strategy. First, I’m abandoning one of National Geographic’s secrets to success: Difference. Those classic Geographic photos of bare-breasted women were not just titillating for teenage boys; they were also a vivid reminder that the world is an eye-popping kaleidoscope of nations and cultures and people who understand the world in dramatically different ways.

Second, by focusing on The Planet, we end up climbing into bed with some nasty characters — autocrats, dictators, and demagogues. That may strike you as wrong, or immoral, or soulless. But let’s be frank: I run a business, not a seminary.

I hasten to add that I enjoy a luxury that many other media executives don’t: Freedom from scrutiny. The non-profit side of the Society has no stockholders. The employees have no union. NGS has “members,” but they have no power, no vote, no real voice. And I almost never agree to be interviewed by journalists. Which means the future of the National Geographic Society is almost entirely in the hands of about 20 people — the Board of Trustees, many of whom I’ve hand-picked, and… me.

All that — plus, as CEO & Chairman of this tax-exempt, non-profit Society, I’m paid more than $1.35 million per year.

The take-away for all you non-profit executives in the audience?

•  Don’t be afraid to change “a bit” — or a lot.

•  Evaluate the growth potential of various global markets, and re-position yourself as needed. After all, one dollar of revenue from Beijing counts the same as one dollar of revenue from Boston.

•  Hire senior managers who — after federal, state, and FICA deductions — will eagerly embrace your values and vision.


Stay thirsty, my friends.   [laughter]

Any questions?


But no need to block “cheetah” or “landscape”

In China, real-time news from Egypt
poses a threat to the ruling party:

National Geographic, on the other hand,
poses no threat at all:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson lead a celebration of our Society's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)

Our Society wasn’t always this way.
As recently as 1991, National Geographic demonstrated that
it had a strong editorial spine.


Dear John,
Do you want your children to inhabit the sort of society — and Society —
that your business decisions are enabling?

John rarely, if ever, gives interviews.
But we’re asking for one — partly to hear his answer to this question —
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.)

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