The Greening and Preening of National Geographic

Roger Edwards

DISCLAIMER: This essay was written on my own time and equipment, and is displayed here in my private account. Opinions contained in this essay are solely the author's, and may not reflect those of my employers or any other organization or individuals in particular.

INSPIRATIONAL FRIEND WANDERING ASTRAY

As a small child in the mid 1970s, I began receiving National Geographic magazine (hereafter, NG for brevity) as a gift from a much older half-brother. Once those gifts ceased as a teen, my parents and I scraped up the funds to continue subscribing, despite our own budgetary poverty. I always will be immeasurably grateful to them for it. Shelves on my bookcase bend and strain under the weight of three decades of NG, to which another issue is added every month. Only a few small clusters are missing, thanks to liquid-spill damage and loss of a box during cross-country moves; and I refill the gaps as opportunity arises. I also have collected many (but far from all) back issues through the '60s, and even a few dating to the '50s, from used bookstores, garage sales and bazaars.

NG was far, far more than an interesting periodical. Its pages thrust open windows to countless and wondrous locations, discoveries and cultures, for a city kid intensely fascinated by geography and earth science. Without a doubt, NG contributed enormously to my continuing desire to explore and appreciate great places in the world. Each month arrived a virtual classroom in print, offering mini-courses as colorful in prose as in photography -- broad and deep enough to teach me well about a topic but still leaving plenty of room for further self-education. Inside every plain brown wrapper, I could count on page after page of prose in each article, writing that was intelligent and creative, yet comprehensible, interspersed with peerless photography and at least one handy little map per story. The pictures -- stunning, powerful, rich in color and detail, peerless in composition and impact -- not only taught me by example the photographic techniques of world-renowned masters, but plumbed the depths of my searching soul, sparked a vast wanderlust of geographic imagination, and helped to ignite a passion for both exploration and photography that will live in me, always. If asked to name all-time favorite photos, a clear majority will have appeared in the pages of NG.

Furthermore, to browse old issues is to rekindle rich histories either never before explored, or fascinating tales read long ago but lost to intervening time. Windows to worlds of the past are every bit as valuable as those of the present and future, and they are wide open across the pages of an NG from 20, 30, 40 or more years ago.

I cannot understate the importance of NG to my development and motivation as an earth scientist and as a photographer. And yet, everything I have written so far is but a tiny and woefully inadequate expression of how much NG has meant to me. If NG were human, it would be a beloved friend or brother, one I now recognize as going terribly astray. It is out of such sentiment, and not from any desire to attack or besmirch, that I express my concerns below. My hope for the Society, particularly NG and its sister publications, is that it is not too late to steer their massive vessel away from some troublesome and very damaging shoals through which its captains are choosing to sail.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE

NG articles increasingly have disappointed me with their loss of substantive richness, in favor of flash and dazzle, primarily over the past 10-15 years. Those long, thoughtfully and richly worded articles I devoured as a youth are a vanishing species. While the writing composition and technical style remains above par, the length, depth and substance of the articles pales by comparison to those from the early 1980s and prior. The transition has been gradual, like lines on an aging face, perhaps barely noticeble if at all even to many long-time readers, and of course totally lost on those who only have subscribed from the early-mid 1990s onward.

This realization eluded me until some point in the past year or two when I had gone back and read enough 1950s-1970s articles; then the trend became stunningly obvious. The change, the deterioration, is quite marked, as if comparing old school snapshots of a favorite, enthusiastic childhood teacher with the feeble and shriveled image of her now staring from the obituary page. You're welcome to slowly read five or six "oldie" issues, then any from this year, and see for yourself. The experience is best undertaken rather than described; though I've tried. If you don't have such a collection at home, most major libraries and many of the larger used bookstores carry NG going back many decades.

Specifically, the number of both pages and words per story has dropped quite noticeably, while the number and size of both article illustrations and commercial advertisements has increased, with far more full pages and 2-3 page foldouts for both. Yes, NG photography remains unexceeded in quality -- and now, my main reason for continuing to subscribe. [If you want me gush hosannas for splendid photography, just show me any shot by Carsten Peter or Mark Moffett!] Its stories, on the other hand, quite obviously have been shallowed a great deal in substance. The writing sometimes is almost as rich and imaginative as ever, despite delivering less information; clearly the talent exists within the Society's recruitment pool of authors. Often, though, stories are sprinkled liberally with hackneyed colloquialisms, incomplete sentences, inappropriately folksy tone and slovenly slang. My best guess is that this is permitted, perhaps encouraged, in order to cater to the shortening attention spans and the thrillseeking mentality now ubiquitously pervasive in the "developed" world.

For this informational and imaginative degradation of NG prose, we can thank unfettered commercialism born of the terribly misguided, "You should have it all, now!" ethos, to which my National Geographic Society now shamelessly contributes in its kids' publication (more on that later). Perhaps the shortsighted, greedy, late 1990s decision to mass-market NG in retail stores has contributed most to the substantive dilution of the articles, and to a creeping infusion of activist bias which I will discuss shortly. The retail sales move was great for the bottom line; and I do not doubt than some wonderful projects have been funded as a result (i.e., Tim Samaras' tornado probe deployments). But what price has been paid, and will be paid in the bigger picture, for NG's editorial pandering to the thrill-a-minute element?

The trend toward flair over depth in NG may be good for catching the fleeting attention spans of my generation and younger, teens to thirtysomethings reared on video games, eyes ever-flickering to and fro in search of a hit of easy excitement. NG succeeds well now in peddling itself to a large sector of the marginally and temporarily interested, with edgy digital graphics and eye-popping colors. This strategy also constitutes a lazy sellout to mass commercialism, and a disturbing disengagement from readers' abilities for deeper topical immersion and critical thinking...skills that the early Grosvenors surely would have championed.

In the meantime, NG also has acquired a pronounced leftward sociopolitical slant in both the selection of topics and writing angle for its nature stories -- many of which seem to be rhetorically softened translations of the shrill cries of Greenpeace nuke-sitters and other environmental alarmists. Of course there are nasty problems out there! I can drive in a day or less to the Tar Creek Superfund area in Picher, OK, the Rocky Flats radiation fields outside Denver, or any of many festering cesspools of toxic chemicals near Houston, and witness this for myself. But the message in what little text remains in many of their stories now is, "How evil we all are for driving cars, for building our homes out of wood, for eating a farmed salmon, for wearing leather, for turning our backs to the trade in tiger bladders in Burma!" This is from a magazine which regularly runs ads for SUVs and big cars, and which is edited and reported by people who burn fossil fuels in their homes and vehicles, who promote the "cultural diversity" that preserves the insane demand for tiger bladders, and who live in dwellings constructed courtesy of the global forestry industry. The more honest, underlying message: "Do as we say, not as we do."

The hypocrisy of the agenda isn't hard to spot. I hate pollution and animal poaching, and want as much as anyone to see it halted, especially in the "developing" countries like China and India where it is most acute and devastating at this time. I am wary of the environmental price we pay for technology. But NG isn't supposed to be a Sierra Club sistership or Green Party mouthpiece. Leave both the overt and implicit advocacy to those with that specific purpose, namely moderate and rational nonprofits like Nature Conservancy (to which I have contributed), or even the more radical groups such as WWF and Greenpeace (to which I never will give).

That said, if I were a radical environmentalist, I would be utterly incensed at NG, and here's why. In the same issue I found a story on mankind's "undeniable" contribution to global warming (the extent of which in reality is still in great dispute), several pages after an advertisement for a vehicle that drinks enormous quantities of petrol. What does this say? Where were these doom-is-upon-us stories back when the Tar Creek lead and zinc mines were being gouged open, when the Cuyahoga River was flowing with flames, when Rocky Flats was becoming a giant radioactive dust-bunny? Worst of all, what was NG doing when the Soviet Union engaged in a scope of sanctioned environmental devastation so massive as make all of the aforementioned scenes look like a waltz through pristine fields of periwinkles...hundreds of thousands of square miles (including but not limited to Chernobyl) polluted beyond repair with chemicals so noxious that even the greatest hazmat experts don't dare enter, tens of thousands of people maimed and killed with utmost agony, and universal horrification of all who have since learned much of it? [To be fair, NG did do a rather superficial, but still shocking, story on Soviet pollution -- of course, only after environmentalism became mass-marketable in the early 1990s.]

Oh, yes... now National Geographic has evolved into a green-advocacy organization, after such has become trendy and fiscally profitable. How convenient! Some call it overdue. Some call it necessary. I call it pandering.

Whatever your political or environmental leanings, the magazine may alienate a large bloc of its audience by going much farther toward the left edge of the road instead of veering back toward the middle, where it occupied such a stately, dignified and honored presence for so long. I suspect NG already has lost many American subscribers who don't care to read continual and incessant accusations of their own environmental evils, either individually or collectively. Such systematic beratement of our society, by extension, puts down everyone who works for a living in it.

Though not so overt as the following example, the soft veneer can be stripped off the tone of some stories to reveal the underlying damnations of capitalistic excess. The essential meaning is the same, whether lifted verbatim from a raging blogosphere of ecoterrorists or distilled in nuance from sugarcoated subtleties of an NG exposé: "You! American food and oil glutton... guilty as charged! Tumor-encrusted infants are dying in Bhopal still today, emperor penguins erupting with seeping lesions under the cosmic-ray floodgates of the Antarctic ozone hole, and all manner of species genocide is happening, thanks to your father's thoughtlessness in buying that can of Dow oven cleaner in 1974...murderer! Do something!!!"

Who wants to pay to be insulted on a monthly basis, and implicated as an accessory to mowing down rain forests and drowning Ridley's sea turtles in shrimp nets? Does the sourness of any of this evil-human guilt tripping even matter to NG editorship? Do the directors of my National Geographic Society care about alienating many present and former readers, while brainwashing a newer and more gullible generation into believing that humans are to blame for every plant and animal casualty? Maybe not, because the move to newsstand sales could numerically mask any associated loss of readership and loyalty. After all, the bottom line is looking rosy as ever, right? Push an agenda. Proclaim impending doom, with as much eye-grabbing pizazz as possible. It must be good...sales are up!

And the hard sell doesn't stop with the grownups, either.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC KIDS MAGAZINE

We don't subscribe to the kids' edition of NG, both out of thrift and out of principle. Instead, I browse copies at the store and at medical offices. While some of the articles and illustrations appear to be quite beneficial for kids' understanding of the world, the profuse and often unhealthful advertising is the bitter pill that kills any chances of my kids' subscribing. The benefits of learning from the articles are more than offset by the profoundly fattening and greedy influence of ads for junk food and toys. Gaudy advertising covers every spare square inch, an unrelenting and malodorous plume of commercialistic halitosis exhaled from front to rear of every issue. Junk food and fast food ads promote poor eating habits, obesity and sloth.

Free enterprise is fine with me; and a for-profit corporation like AOL TimeWarner or Newsweek can run whatever ads it darn well pleases. National Geographic, on the other hand, purports to be a nonprofit educational society promoting knowledge of a science (geography). That status alone imparts a greater responsibility for careful judgment and prudence in the advertising they accept. Don't get me wrong: I like an occasional candy bar or hot, juicy burger as much as anybody; but I would die in two years if I followed a diet straight from those ads! What message does this send to kids? The answer is simple: "Eat this delicious sludge and waste away your childhood playing with these dazzling video games you begged from your frazzled and distracted parents. [Oh, and while you're here, we'll tell you the story of the New Zealand Maoris and their culture that a bunch of bad-guy English invaders almost wiped out.]"

Can't my National Geographic Society adhere to higher standards than to promote dietary irresponsibility, mindless toys and sedentary video games for your children and mine? Can't an "educational" publication be more responsible and selective in the advertising they accept? Is National Geographic that hard up for cash? Apparently not, given the following...

Recently, a friend alerted me to the utter lack of advertising in promotional issues of National Geographic for Kids, distributed free of charge in direct (junk) mail solicitations. A watchdog group called The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has seized on this greasy little irony, alleging deceptive practices by the Society in sending advertising-free editions pro bono to parents and grandparents, then charging for subscriptions to magazines packed with unhealthy advertising. You may read their press release for more details. [There are many positions CSPI has advocated that are in strong contrast to my sociopolitical or moral views; but this isn't one of them. Deception is deception, and it is wrong, period. It is yet another profound disappointment that my Society has wallowed this deeply into the sewage pond of commercialism.]

I will excerpt the salient points of CSPI's claims here.

    CSPI is asking the FTC to block National Geographic from distributing ad-free sample issues of National Geographic Kids so long as the publication itself contains advertising. The complaint also asks the FTC to require National Geographic to offer refunds to all current subscribers to National Geographic Kids. ... Another [reader] wondered how National Geographic could have “gone so wrong, treating children like nothing more than little consumers,” calling it “truly ugly.” CSPI told the National Geographic Society in July that some of its junk food ads were especially unseemly for a magazine ostensibly devoted, in part, to appreciation of the animal kingdom: Ads for Hostess Cup Cakes and Twinkies actually depict a duck being hit by a train and a beaver being crushed by a falling object. In addition to ads for junk foods, National Geographic Kids contains ads for DVDs, television shows, and video games—all products that discourage physical activity and, like junk foods, help fuel childhood obesity. National Geographic Kids has included advertisements since its launch in 2002. A predecessor publication, National Geographic World, was ad-free from its launch in 1975 until mid-2002, when ads began appearing.

Please note that this trend in NG World is in sync with the deterioration of textual substance in the primary National Geographic magazine, as I have discussed above. I don't believe these tendencies to be coincidental.

Again, commercial enterprise has its place in our capitalistic system. Indeed, I am a vociferous advocate of free enterprise, when maintained in its rightful place. It does not, however, belong unrestrained, devoid of conscience, in the pages of a nonprofit children's science magazine!

SOLUTIONS

The basic focus of my National Geographic Society, as founded and intended from the beginning, is straightforward and quite simple: geographic education and exploration. Nothing more, nothing less! NG slowly has wandered away from that basic, strong and honorable ideal, in favor of unbalanced green activism and glamorous commercial appeal. The two are often mutually contradictory, the message hypocritical (as in the example of the NG Kids ads depicting animals being smashed for fun). In the end, I guess the intent of the magazine and the Society has been subverted at the altar of the bottom line, like so much else.

The solution in general terms is also plain and simple: Get back to the sociopolitical objectivity of fact, and the scientific depth of substance, which built the NG reputation for educational excellence to begin with, even at risk of a short-term monetary hiccup. Yes, I mean, take risks in the name of excellence! Reduce advertisement in NG Kids to no more than four pages total from front and rear. Restrict the subject matter of advertising to educational and scientific topics -- no non-educational toys or games, no fast food or junk food. In NG, cut the size and number of graphics, especially nonphotographic art, while maintaining their still-unmatched quality. [This alone saves costs in printing so many large fold-outs.] In their place, lengthen the articles' text by at least 30%, and provide more rich detail of the topics discussed. Stay off the sociopolitical and environmental soap-box when selecting story topics, and in the writing and editing of articles. Instead, give us readers credit for enough intelligence to think critically for ourselves, and make up our own minds based on a balanced set of facts, anecdotes and circumstances reported. End the reality and appearance of pandering to the mass market: Withdraw retail and online store sales of new magazines, except at select bookstores; and return the privelege of readership to those interested and motivated enough to either go to those bookstores, patronize their local library, or purchase a membership. Restrict the bulk of online materials at www.nationalgeographic.org to members (including public and school libraries, so that the poor can have access), and further emphasize substance and quality in online specials.

My National Geographic Society needs to emphasize depth and excellence over agendas and superficial bedazzlement. I am more than willing to put my money where my keyboard is and pay more in membership fees to see this happen. Otherwise I will be compelled to cancel my membership and subscription, withdrawing my longtime financial support of the Society (to my utmost sorrow!), and instead, to procure all desired future copies of NG in used form from flea markets and resale outlets. After 15-20 years of observing my National Geographic Society's degradation of balanced excellence, time is running short, and patience is getting thin.

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