National Geographic: The Whole World Is Watching. Something.

Someone just asked on Facebook if humans are naturally carnivores. My response: What is a carnivore? Taxon? A certain percentage of meat in the diet? Some, even if just a few, humans living mostly off meat? What? Then, what is “naturally”? Genetically determined and unavoidable? Required because of our gut, or some nutritional thing? What if we were like cats, genetically driven to be effective hunters but seeming in need of some training from mom. Does that make it not natural? And, finally, of course, define the verb “to be” here. Thank you.

So, with that in mind, what about the sentence…

“Rupert Murdoch Bought National Geographic.”

11215063_10206537192685263_5276108758147554290_nI’m seeing this all over the place, along with much consternation and the occasional meme (I’ve included a couple of the memes here). Few people articulate their reasons for consternation, probably because it is so obvious. We don’t want a truth-hating right wing anti-environment jerk running a major Earth-loving institution, with a great magazine and TV specials and everything. It would destroy a long tradition, all that. The truth is too precious, especially the truth about the earth and the environment.

And I would agree with that more or less if it turns out to be true. People should be concerned about the recent thing that happened. But, if you are concerned about that because the truth matters, then please, don’t produce or repeat so much unmitigated bullshit.

Again, I reiterate my concern, because if I don’t I’ll be accused of thinking FOX news is great or for being a Rupert Murdoch Fan or something, because, after all, the truth really matters little even to those who claim it (care about the truth) is central to their very being. So if you were going to do that, just don’t. But let us please look at what is really happening here so you know exactly what to watch for, and to help guide your thinking as things unfold.

First, “National Geographic” is not a thing. It might be a short hand for the magazine, or the web site, or various TV specials, or “The National Geographic Society” which is involved in all those things. I would say that the shorthand “National Geographic” best applies to the society. If it does, then the phrase “Rupert Murdoch bought National Geographic” is simply not true because that simply did not happen.

Second, “bought” is not an appropriate word here. What did happen is that the National Geographic Society (NGS) and a commercial media company have partnered to run the National Geographic Magazine. The news agency has bought into the is partnership at just over 70%, NGS with the remainder. That is not buying the magazine, it is restructuring who is financially running it, though yes, the media company is in control with a major share of the partnership. You might thing that is the same thing as buying something, but if you do, you’d have a dangerously oversimplistic view of these things. So don’t.

Third, Rupert Murdoch did not buy anything. Well, he’s bought lots of stuff, of course, and a few years ago he bought and sold and restructured stuff so there cane to be a new version of 21st Century Fox and News Group. News Group was Murdoch’s old company, and 21st Century Fox comes down from the long time famous studio. News Group now owns or engages in print, 21st Century Fox now owns or engages in pixels, more or less, as far as I can tell. It is a publicly owned company, so if you have a mutual fund or something there is a chance that YOU BOUGHT NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC HA HA HA. Right?

Anyway, having said all that, one could argue that the Evil Entity Known as Fox-Murdoch has effectively taken over National Geographic Something Something (where Something Something is the magazine and the Cable network and stuff). Fine. Think that, be concerned, be mad, and complain about it. But don’t complain that “Rupert Murdoch Bought National Geographic” because it is not correct.

11986346_1637083499902501_1321351435246200901_nPedantic? Yes, in part, but also important. For example, knowing so little about the situation to go all apoplectic and throw out your old National Geographic Magazines and cancel your subscription would be a sign of ignorance more than good activism. For at least two reasons.

First, did you know that FOX and NGS were already partners in a large amount of their prior activities, and this simply expands it? Where were you then, where were the memes then, were was the outrage?

And, second, did it make any difference? Did you see the Politics of Murdoch imprinted in the National Geographic Society ventures? Probably not. And this brings us to the more expanded second reason. 21st Century Fox is a huge company and has more interest in making profit than in imposiing its political will on all things it does. Hell, it has enough political will being imposed in a handful of its ventures, it hardly need to do something else.

Also, the Magazine part of this venture is being run by a Murdoch son, and the Murdoch son is famously different from dad politically. And, 21st Century Fox has promised to keep hands off.

Finally, what was so pure about National Geographic Magazine before? A great travel magazine, much less anthropological than people usually think. Did you really ever read it? Do you know what you are trying to save? I’m not saying there is anything wrong with NG Magazine, but it may not be what you were thinking. It really is a travel magazine for the 1% and those who wish to be them. The National Geographic Society, of course, is different. That is bigger, involved in all the other things mentioned, and provides grants for some pretty cool research.

Be outraged if you want, but please be outraged about the outrageous. We don’t know if this is outrageous, or even different. Having said that, watch closely. Very closely. And be triply outraged if the “hands off” policy turns out to be anything but hands off.

Be ever vigilant. But about real things.

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23 thoughts on “National Geographic: The Whole World Is Watching. Something.

  1. “Rupert Murdoch Bought ____________.”

    Insert your favorite { media outlet, politicians, religious organization, educational system, political party } in the blank above, or you may substitute “your brain”.

    “All your base are belong to us. You are on the way to destruction.”

  2. Greg,

    Thanks for this, because I like to think the truth really does matter to me. You’re quite right that “National Geographic” is a multi-faceted thing (if it is a thing at all). For me, it’s shorthand for the magazine, which I’ve subscribed to for decades. I always at least skim new issues, and usually read a couple of the articles and sometimes the whole issue from cover to cover, carefully because they tend to be information-dense. I keep a stack of recent issues around so I can revisit the ones I skimmed when they arrived, in case I missed something important.

    I’m adopting a wait-and-see position on the business partnership deal, and I’ll be watching for any suspicious changes in content or editorial stance. I’ll let you know if I notice any 8^).

  3. Thanks for that, Greg. Some really excellent points there. I do love some of the memes though…a few have had me laughing out loud.

  4. National Geographic actually has done a lot of excellent environmental reporting over the years. You gotta wonder if that will diminish now.

  5. I worry less about the political slant changing, because I really don’t think that will happen, and more about the product changing. The best intentions go behind great ideas like Discovery Channel, History Channel, etc. etc. and eventually marketing numskulls take over and ruin everything. That’s what I’d worry about.

    I haven’t seen political implications in the NGS specials over the last few years (have not seen them all) but I’ve also not seen a “must use this in class” special from NGS for a very long time. Or anywhere else, almost. The whole documentary thing is pretty much ruined, and has been for a decade or so. And the older, better, stuff is often too out of date to use any more. Using sections of documentaries in classes for anything but critiquing the documentary is becoming a thing of the past.

    So I do worry about the magazine, but not the politics going south. Just the quality. But it may not. We’ll see.

  6. First, thanks for the calming-down argument. All you say is true, except I also want to quibble with “travel magazine for the 1%.” It’s a geography magazine: it’s really about the “where of stuff.” Some of that is travelogue, some is newsy reportage, some is “here is what explorers have found” (which is surprising given how much of the surface and accessible subsurface of the globe we think we know). But the geography bit is the central theme, and has been since the society’s founding.

    The thing they do and have done for decades is have the highest production values. The best photography, top-notch writing, and some of the best cartography in the world. I’m a cartographer, and I am continually impressed by the quality of their work… but (and this is true of the photos and writing) it is quality in a pretty conservative sense: they do not break bleeding-edge ground, they have a pretty rigid style set (including proprietary fonts developed back when my parents were young), and not a lot of creative latitude. They have excellent craft, but not a lot of deep innovation. And that’s OK. We need groups out there, striving for a conservative vision of highest quality, just as we need innovation.

  7. OK, Terry and Nat, and a few others in other fora who have critiqued my critique about NGM being a travel magazine.

    I’m going to stick with my assertion. The magazine has a high percentage of articles about exotic places in the world (there is indeed a vast anthropological critique of NGM related to its exocitization of the others, as an anthropologist might say; entire university classes have been taught on this subject alone). In many cases these articles are about the places you can go if you are willing and able to pay big bucks for a high end exclusive rich-person tour. I’ve actually run these tours myself, and my clients often had stories of exclusive and exotic travel often inspired by NGM. Look at the ads in the magazine as well. They are often ads of high end travel gear and high end tour companies. I don’t think there is any doubt that a good part of the oomph of NGM is about high end travel.

    Having said that a thing can be more than one thing. NGM is also about photography, and in this sense, it is the top outlet in the world. Some of my field researcher colleagues (Mark Moffet, Tim Laman, etc.) have partly funded their own research by interacting with NGS in the photography world. The photography is both cultural and natural, depending.

    And the cartography/maps/exploration theme is there as well.

    The mission statement of the magazine is:

    “Almost any of us, with a little time and a little savings to spend, can travel to
    places and do things that no previous generation could. Every couple of years,
    we can have an adventure of a lifetime. And in the meantime, we can live our
    lives adventurously. This magazine is designed to help you do that.”

    That’s pretty clear, and I think the “travel magazine for the 1% and those who wish to be” is an accurate reflection of that mission statement, and in fact, I wrote that sentence precisely as such a reflection after looking up the mission statement.

    At the same time the NGS has a different mission. In part:

    “National Geographic is a global nonprofit membership organization driven by a passionate belief in the power of science, exploration and storytelling to change the world. Working to inspire, illuminate and teach, National Geographic reaches more than 700 million people a month through its media platforms, products, events and experiences.”

    That includes the magazine, the web sites, the granting/research program, the photography, and the documentaries.

    So, I’m pretty sure we are all correct here.

  8. Several friends have been working for the NGO TV channel for years and I hate to burst your bubble (can’t help but wonder is fox is paying you) they literally had to quit working for the TV shows as they have been going down in quality for years. So to answer your question, we were there and people within the TV industry have complained have bad the channel has gotten how the brand has been destroyed. Now that the magazine has been taken over by a media company that owns the single worst propaganda rags in the country, I’m sorry to inform you but the magazine will be effected. They’ve already published an article supporting GMOs. People are waking up and are not putting up with this trash anymore. It’s not journalism it’s corporate lies and their time is over.

  9. Katy, first, I don’t appreciate the accusation. That is actually a pretty serious accusation, that I’m being paid to express a particular opinion. That is entirely unacceptable and I require a prompt apology.

    Having said that, no kidding on the quality. It really does seem to have gone down. I think I mention above something about this in the comments. The quality of the NG documentaries is poor, and may have become poor when FOX got involved. Interesting to hear your perspective (as hearsay-ish and breathless as it may be) and it does conform to my own observations.

    Do you have evidence, though, that NGS specials were politically slanted in the way that people are concerned with?

    As far as the magazine goes, they are claiming that the quality will be maintained, and they are claiming that FOX is totally hands off. This may be true.

    On the other hand, it is also hard to understand how NG could be so oblivious to how a large portion of the readership of NGM would feel with this new partnership. This makes me think that they are working in relatively isolated echo chambers, or are desperate. Either way, the concern I express above in my post (and that you echo, even if you ignored my concern in so doing) is very real.

    Also, it’s affected, not effected.

    Looking forward to your apology. Meanwhile, keep an eye on NG.

  10. Fair enough on the magazine’s focus. Though they do do a fair number of feature stories that have nothing to do with travel (“Inside the human brain!”, “Mankind’s long journey” etc.). Travel is, as you say, the direct “this is your life” connection to readers—the grab, as it were.

    Further to Katry’s concern: pro-GMO does not automatically mean you are on Monsanto’s payroll (you didn’t say that, but the implication is, if you write pro-GMO, you are permanently tainted and can’t be trusted on any subject). The trouble is, there’s a lot of debate, and a lot of reputable scientists NOT on Monsanto’s payroll who don’t object to GMO’s on ecological or safety grounds. Pro-GMO isn’t a hard-right issue; it’s really a pretty centrist, conventional stance. I’m not saying it SHOULD be, but just pointing out that for NGM to publish with that point of view does not mean it has joined the Fox-News, screw-the-science bandwagon. It does mean (and this confirms what I said above) that NG has been and continues to be a pretty staid and conservative, centrist magazine. This is the baseline for change, not an indicator that The Evil Australian has already begun his scheme to make it a fount of ignorance and lies.

  11. Thanks for this Greg Laden.

    The news has been worrying me – seen on facebook and yeah, concerned.

    @6. Terry : Seconded by me. Grow up reading National Geo mags (along with so much more but, yeah, them as well)& I’ve generally found them informative, entertaining and raising awareness of a lot of things that aren’t mainstream and in good depth. Plus they’ve provided some awesome posters and maps. So,yeah, I’m a fan and hope they don’t change much.

  12. This is from a friend of one my buddies — a guy who worked at NGS for over 15 years:

    “I’m dismayed but not surprised. The bastards who did this screwed all the writers and photographers ten years ago. I worked for the NGS when it was a non-profit and was staffed by wonderful men and women. Starting in the mid-80s, a bunch of corporate droids (a team from Reader’s Digest) took over, after the board of directors panicked over a leveling off in circulation — first time they had no growth in 100 years. The newbies fired 1,000 of the 2,000 people on staff over several years: Cartographers, researchers, lab folks, editors, proofers.

    “I could tell you stories. The culture change was heart-breaking. All the cool people shafted, all the kiss-ass corporate droids weaseling their way up the ladder.

    “They fired the jerk who took over TRAVELER because of his drinking. Then he died. The corporate people wrote an obituary that made him sound like a combination of Ernest Hemingway and Max Perkins. He cheapened TRAVELER forever. It just doesn’t stop…”

  13. The magazine is not the same as NGS, but it is actually the publication of NGS so it is not a for-profit company.

    I would guess he was referring to the ventures by NGS in for profit partnerships which were set up (there are many) to carry out specific projects with for profit companies (like FOX). But that does not make NGS not a non-profit any more than it makes the partner (i.e. FOX) an owner of NGS.

    Corporate status and ownership are real things and there are people in expensive suits who will take anyone down who materially acts as though they aren’t! 🙂

  14. I hesitate to offer support to conspiracists like Katy Walker (would she be this “Katie”?), and I certainly don’t agree that GMOs are somehow intrinsically evil.

    However, I know of at least one case in which genes for herbicide resistance were deliberately engineered into a pernicious weed of wildlands. Creeping bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera), a Eurasian species, is a popular turfgrass for lawns, golf courses, etc. In Oregon’s Willamette valley, it’s an aggressive invader of native plant communities, and once established is very difficult to eradicate (personal experience). In 2002, the Scott’s Company and Monsanto Corporation, with the approval of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, conducted field trials of “Roundup Ready” creeping bent in a “production control” area of Oregon, in the process of obtaining USDA-APHIS approval for commercial release. Despite prior assurances, the RR genes escaped into feral A. stolonifera populations, and intensive eradication efforts have failed. The USDA did not approve RR creeping bent for commercial release, but the genes are now in the wild, and conservationists and ecological restorationists are losing one of the few effective weapons against a troublesome invasive alien plant.

    The point is that if the regulatory agencies we expect to protect the biosphere from any potential harmful impacts of GMOs fail to do so, the consequences may be irreversible. Unfortunately, we all know how vulnerable those agencies are to capture by the parties they are supposed to regulate. It is the love of money that is the root of all evil, not GMOs in particular.

    By the same token, we shouldn’t be surprised if the conversion of a non-profit to a for-profit venture leads to unwelcome changes in its mission.

  15. Well back in March NatGeo Magazine had a cover titled “The War on Science” and listed a number of conspiracies such as global warming denial, denial of evolution and yes the demonization of GMOs.

    I subscribed because of that issue and have enjoyed every issue since. I was impressed that they had the guts to call out anti-science thinking on both sides of the political spectrum and more importantly they put it on the cover, where it would absolutely draw fire.

    The only thing that makes me sad about having Murdoch’s name connected to the magazine is that now whenever they cover an issue that the political left doesn’t like it will just be dismissed as political bias from Fox. As the fake cover in this article so elegantly foreshadows.

  16. Wow, nice to read that someone else noticed that NatGeo is a travel magazine for the wealthy.

    NatGeo was once very interesting for the nature news Etc. it carried, but today it’s all about the 1st. person experience of the person writing the story who may or may not be doing something related to science.

  17. RIP National Geographic (1888-2015)
    Have recent events, the firings for instance, changed your mind? I don’t think it’s looking at all good and the Fox Views empire has been completely true to form, right on the very day of acquisition. I fear their last issue, on climate change, and the Bill Nye ‘Global Meltdown’ program will be their last gasp.

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