People, Environment

National Geographic’s Faustian Bargain

Travel & Environment Desk
National Geographic’s Faustian Bargain
National Geographic’s Faustian Bargain

On Wednesday, news broke that National Geographic had abandoned its non-profit status after 127 years to sell majority shares to Australian American media mogul and notorious climate change denier Rupert Murdoch.

The news shocked the scientific community.

Since its inception in 1888, National Geographic Society strived to promote scientific literacy in an unbiased, easy-to-read format via its popular magazine and, in doing so, created a stalwart brand. But now, NatGeo is going commercial and getting involved with a person who is the embodiment of everything the organization fought against for over a century.

  Long History

The NatGeo-Murdoch alliance goes back nearly 15 years, when Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox partnered with the NatGeo Society to launch the National Geographic Channel in the US in 2001.

Those who read the magazine and have occasionally watched the cable TV channel are aware of the stark contrast in quality between the two media.

The magazine has consistently drawn attention to science and the environment’s most pressing issues. This is while NatGeo channel has become a producer of non-scientific malarkey on ghosts and UFOs, and documentaries such as “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly, a Fox News host whose gaffe on live television in 2011 revealed he had no idea how oceanic tides crest and fall.

  Good Business Sense

The business venture has led to the creation of the National Geographic Partners, with Murdoch owning 73% of the company. Murdoch paid a reported $725 million to NatGeo Society, which pushes the organization’s total endowment to $1 billion—a considerable amount of money for an organization short on cash and battered by the digital revolution.

As Gizmodo points out, the partnership allows NatGeo to use Murdoch’s media empire to reach a wider audience and, given its new for-profit status, boost revenues.

But was selling out to Murdoch worth endangering the integrity of the publication? Although the magazine does not have the 10 million readers it did back in its prime, it still boasts over 3.5 million subscribers. However, that may soon change.

  The Positive

Following the announcement of the partnership, those involved in the deal were quick to quell concerns over the future of the magazine and its editorial coverage.

Susan Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the magazine, told Washingtonian that Fox will not interfere with NatGeo’s content, sentiments echoed by Fox CEO James Murdoch who assured readers that the organization will not influence the editorial coverage of the magazine.

Some pundits have argued that Murdoch, being a businessman, will not risk losing readers to push his own anti-science agenda. They point to “Cosmos”, a critically-acclaimed remake of the hit 1980 science documentary of the same name, as a successful collaboration between Fox and NatGeo, and evidence that the former is unlikely to interfere with the latter’s scientific content.

They say the fact that Neil deGrasse Tyson, who hosted the 2014 Cosmos remake, spoke at length about climate change and humans’ undeniable contribution to global warming, indicates Murdoch’s financial motivation trumps his desire to spread his anti-climate change views.

  The Negative

While some sections remain optimistic, the same cannot be said for most people who fear for the future of the publication.

Looking at Fox News’ sordid anti-science history is enough to cause concern among even the most wishful thinkers.

In 2010, following a statement by UN scientists saying 2000-9 was expected to become the warmest decade on record, a memo was issued by Fox News managing director Bill Simmons telling the news channel’s staff to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question … It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.”

In an Op-Ed published in the Globe and Mail in 2013, Michael Prafit, a maker of TV documentaries for NatGeo channel, lambasted the sorry state of the channel.

“An amoral cynicism has taken hold on many non-fiction cable channels … [which] has led to programs that are so misleading, they often undermine educational goals.”

In 2014, Bloomberg quoted Rupert Murdoch as saying, “Climate change has been going on as long as the planet is here … Things are happening. How much of it are we doing, with emissions and so on? As far as Australia goes? Nothing in the overall picture.”

In case you missed the latest climate reports, Australia is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita and is the world’s 13th biggest producer of carbon dioxide.

Murdoch’s anti-climate change stance and the record of his Fox News cable channel do not leave much room for optimism. NatGeo Society, for ostensibly financial reasons, has had to bow to the pressures of a changing world and handed the reins of one of the most reputable science magazines to a man known for his disdain toward scientific issues, especially global warming.

We can only hope that Murdoch’s business sense will temper his anti-science posturing, lest we risk losing one of the last remaining beacons of scientific literacy.