What happened to National Geographic?

My heart sank a few weeks ago when Craig Medred posted his scathing criticism of the National Geographic Channel's Alaska State Troopers, a "reality" TV series that's painfully short on reality. The National Geographic Society "used to be a bastion of journalistic integrity," Medred writes. "Nowadays it feels compelled to ... concoct outlandish bear dangers to increase television market share? Talk about tarnishing a once-iconic brand."

"What happened to National Geographic?" Medred asks.

I've been wrestling with the same question for years. From 1990 until 2008, I proudly served as a staff writer and editor for National Geographic magazine, and I'm still a loyal dues-paying member of the Society. But after more than two years of reporting and writing, I can't argue with Mr. Medred's general critique — especially when the evidence is so overwhelming:

  • Eric Deggens, the TV critic for the Tampa Bay Times, went on National Public Radio on Dec. 7 to criticize a spate of new shows that he calls “redneck TV,” including Hillbilly Handfishin’ (Animal Planet), Redneck Riviera (CMT), and National Geographic’s Rocket City Rednecks. “Even when these guys have Ph.Ds in aerospace engineering, the show makes them sound like extras in a Hee Haw skit.” Deggens says. “On these shows, decades of stereotypes about the South have risen again, ready to make a new generation laugh at the expense of real understanding."
  • National Geographic, which once showcased such luminaries as Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau, now serves up TV shows about lesbians in a Brazilian jail.... men who make love to life-size plastic dolls... a man who makes love to his car... an outdoorsman intentionally driven to the brink of death ... and more.
  • National Geographic self-censors stories about censorship in China so the Society can do business in China. For contrast, consider this: During World War II, National Geographic gave maps to General Eisenhower to help Allied troops defeat the Nazis; and during much of the Cold War, National Geographic refused to publish stories about the Soviet Union because the Magazine’s editors were staunch anti-communists. The Magazine, which still is “the official journal of the National Geographic Society,” had a clear and very political point of view that millions of readers once embraced.
  • To “inspire people to care about the planet” (the Society’s relatively new mission statement), National Geographic worked with Gabon’s Omar Bongo, who, until he died last year, was one of Africa’s longest ruling dictators. With National Geographic’s encouragement, “President” Bongo established a huge network of national parks in Gabon, which is great news if you’re a tree or an elephant — but not if you’re a Gabonese citizen who yearns to breathe free.
  • National Geographic — whose Editor claims it to be a magazine “without bias” — supported and celebrated a high-ranking government official in Egypt whose anti-democratic agenda has been painfully obvious.
  • The National Geographic Channel in India uses the Society’s good name to recruit soldiers for India’s army and navy. (No word yet if the Society’s channel in Russia is planning similar shows. And while there is no NG Channel in China today, that’s undoubtedly on the horizon.)
  • On and on it goes....

How has National Geographic — an iconic and much beloved American institution that once celebrated all that is good in the world — found itself mired in such editorial squalor?

It's a long story, but here's the short version: In the mid-1990s, the National Geographic Society faced a dramatic decline in its membership which continues today. (More than 10 million people once belonged to NGS; now there are fewer than 5 million dues-paying members.) As a result, senior executives decided to begin transforming the Society into a global media company — turning National Geographic into, de facto, the International Geographic.

That strategy, largely the creation of Chairman and CEO John Fahey, has taken shape in two main ways.

First, National Geographic magazine, which was published only in English for more than 100 years, is published today in more than 30 languages, including Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. With a vast international audience, the Magazine's editorial staff, based in Washington, DC, must produce stories that please all the Society's global publishing partners, who translate the articles from English into their own languages. Which means we all get more stories about what we share (i.e., The Planet) and fewer stories about what makes America and the West so different — stories such as "James Madison: Architect of the Constitution" (NGM, September 1987).

Put another way: National Geographic became a national treasure because it once illuminated the world's kaleidoscopic range of differences. Exhibit A — those iconic National Geographic pictures of bare-breasted women. Those images were of special interest not only to generations of teenage boys; the photos also illustrated the contrasts in world cultures: In some places, women walk around with their breasts bare, but here, in the West, women don't. What an amazing world we live in!

Second, National Geographic wanted to launch its own cable TV channel in the late 1990s, but lacked the money to go it alone — so they searched for a partner. As a result, the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel is Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Mr. Murdoch's approach to the media business has been well documented elsewhere; so has News Corp's current phone-hacking scandal. Yet it's worth remembering that the Fox Reality Channel (which in 2010 was rebranded as Nat Geo Wild) once produced such shows as My Bare Lady (porn stars try out new careers), Seducing Cindy, Battle of the Bods, and Sex Decoys: Love Stings.

Murdoch "indulges and makes money off sex and sensationalism," says Thomas Kiernan, author of Citizen Murdoch. "That's what he's built his empire on."

So while it's no surprise that a Murdoch media outlet produces shows on, say, sex addiction, it's still a surprise when it appears beneath National Geographic's iconic Yellow Rectangle:

The people who run National Geographic are smart, creative, and extraordinarily talented. And the challenges they confront are daunting: How to sustain the Society without crudely commercializing National Geographic's good name — and without abandoning the values and stories that have long helped to keep our society democratic and free.

So while some critics justifiably say TV shows like Alaska State Troopers and Rocket City Rednecks don't show our society at its best, all is not lost. There is a way to fix the problem.

The National Geographic Society is a tax-exempt, 501(c)3 organization. It's financial success is partly due to the tax break that's long been granted to the Society by American taxpayers. In addition, NGS has no stockholders, no union, and no family trust that runs the business. In the end, our Society's future — and the stories that National Geographic tells the world — comes down to just 21 people: John Fahey and the NGS Board of Trustees.

I know John Fahey. He's a reasonable and likable guy. He's also a businessman who listens to his customers. He'll stop embarrassing Alaskans, Southerners, and millions of others who still cherish the values and stories that help our Society — and our society — cohere. But John will alter his course only if he hears your voice and the voice of thousands of others, and realizes there's a popular demand for something better.

Alan Mairson is a freelance journalist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He's also a former staff writer and editor at National Geographic magazine, and the proprietor of Society Matters, an online project that explores how the National Geographic Society could create a new blueprint for journalism.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.