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…

Letters-legal-and-photos

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:  

John_Fahey_Reporters_Committee_First_Amendment_speech

I couldn’t agree more.

all the best,
Alan

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

What, then, do Chinese authorities want journalists talking about? Cheetahs.

China-confessions-on-TV-WaPo

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

Economist-new-face-of-terror-soft-power

What is “soft power”?

Soft-Power-book-cover-quote

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

Elephant-in-the-room-clip

But all that has changed:
UAE-MEDIA-NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC-ARABIC

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.

History isn’t over

Which begs the question:
Which side of history are we on?

From National Geographic’s archival Tumblr:

China NatGeoMag balloons

Twitter-Alan-reply-LiuXiaobo-NatGeoMag

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)

The Damage

Pierre-Omidyar-Twitter-censorship

Pierre Omidyar is the founder and chairman of eBay, and founder of the Omidyar Network, an investment firm that fosters economic advancement and encourages individual participation across multiple investment areas, including microfinance, property rights, and government transparency.

Meanwhile:

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)

Read how Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic magazine,
self-censored when the (Chinese) government began watching our Society.

If National Geographic refuses to speak out
about the ongoing house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo,
then what Chinese topics is it okay for our Society to address in public?
Evidently, stuff like this:

NatGeo-Books-China-man-balloon-Twitter

 

Tale of Two Stories

This feature story about the illegal ivory trade — with a special focus on China — was recently posted at The Atlantic:

The Atlantic story on elephant poaching

This cover story on the same subject — but which focuses on the Philippines (not China) and the use of ivory by religious communities (i.e., Buddhists and Catholics) — was published by National Geographic in October 2012:

NGM Blood Ivory cover

Length of The Atlantic‘s story, in words: 12,700+
Number of times the “Philippines” is mentioned: 3

Length of the National Geographic story, in words: 7,500+
Number of times the “Philippines” is mentioned: 18

What The Atlantic says about the Philippines (all three mentions):

  • … The rest goes to Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and other Asian friends of the United States, in routine disregard of the ivory ban that the United States led a generation ago.
  • … The prospect of sanctions came up the last time around, when, as the Bangkok Post recounts, the conference identified three African nations, along with transit countries Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and top markets China and Thailand – as making insufficient efforts to curb the trade.
  • … They need to trust us on this one, as do Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and every other friendly or dependent government in the Asia-Pacific region, and more “promising steps” such as Secretary Clinton noted last November aren’t going to cut it.

What National Geographic says about the Philippines (only 4 of 18 mentions):

  • “The Philippines is a favorite destination of these smuggled elephant tusks, maybe because Filipino Catholics are fond of images of saints that are made of ivory.” 
  • When I ask how new ivory gets to the Philippines, he tells me that Muslims from the southern island of Mindanao smuggle it in.
  • During my five trips to the Philippines I visited every one of the ivory shops Garcia recommended to me and more, inquiring about buying ivory. More than once I was asked if I was a priest. 
  • Corruption is so bad in the Philippines that in 2006 the wildlife department sued senior customs officers for “losing” several tons of seized ivory. 

What a political cartoonist in the Philippines says about Bryan Christy, who wrote the National Geographic cover story:

political cartoon about NGM coverage of Blood Ivory

Number of times National Geographic mentions “Buddhist”:  10
Number of times The Atlantic mentions “Buddhist”: 0

Number of times National Geographic mentions “Catholic”: 8
Number of times The Atlantic mentions “Catholic”:  0

Number of times I’ve asked Bryan Christy for an on-the-record Q&A so he can describe in detail his fieldwork for this story: 6
Number of times Bryan Christy has responded or acknowledged my requests: 0

What might explain National Geographic‘s willingness to punch well below its weight class, and beat up the Philippines instead of China?

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)

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society

 

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

Milan-Kundera-quote-power-memory

If only he cared more about cheetahs

Chen Guangcheng at Oslo Freedom Forum

Meanwhile, at our Society:
Chris Johns & Terry Adamson shake hands with our new publishing partners in the People's Republic of China (2007).

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

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)

_____
More than 20 years ago in National Geographic magazine
(long before any local language editions were launched):

 

Why John Fahey’s decision to do business in China was a huge mistake for the National Geographic Society

Banned in China: Bloomberg and New York Times say they had no choice

Meanwhile:

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

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

Chris & Terry shake hands with our new partners.

Chris & Terry shake hands with our new partners.

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)

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