Last week, news broke that the National Geographic Society had sold its magazine, TV channels, and other media properties to 21st Century Fox. This caused more consternation than your usual media/business story. Fox also runs Fox News, and is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who uses his media empire to deny the science of climate change and is also the devil. National Geographic magazine on the other hand – as we all remember from our childhoods – is known for its deep commitment to science and exploration. Also, the boobs of women in developing countries. But mostly about science and exploration.
Your childhood was wrong. As a long-struggling non-profit, National Geographic – and especially its TV channel – has planted its boots well on the tainment side of edutainment. As a media enterprise, the desire to tell a good story has rarely been derailed by the concerns of experts or the truth. Just like Fox News.
I started to pay attention to this a few years ago, when I wondered whatever happened to the star of one of my favorite NatGeo stories: Koko, the gorilla who could use and understand sign language. As a kid, I thought her story was incredible. How cool to be able to communicate with a gorilla! And the gorilla had a pet cat! Someday, I would be able to talk to animals!
What happened? It’s been decades and we’re not exactly awash in semi-articulate apes (outside of Republican presidential candidates – zing!). It turns out that there were a lot of problems with the “science” around Koko – not least of which was the fact that her handlers never released their data to other scientists, and no one has been able to duplicate the alleged results. As far back as 1980, there was pretty fierce debate about how much “science” factored into work with Koko, and how much was intentional or unintentional cueing by her handler combined with some wishful thinking in interpreting the signs Koko made. Also, her first pet cat escaped and was run over by a car.
Then there’s the story of the discovery of the Titanic. I was 11 in 1985 when the oceanographer Robert Ballard and his team discovered the wreck, solving the then-73 year mystery of its location. It’s hard to remember a time when the biggest mystery surrounding the Titanic wasn’t the appeal of James Cameron’s terrible film, but that the ship itself had never been found. And then Ballard and his robots, funded by the National Geographic Society, found it. What a great story. What a great, not exactly truthful, story. Robert Ballard was on a secret mission funded by the US Navy to locate two sunken nuclear submarines. The Navy agreed that if he found the Thresher and the Scorpion, he could use the time left on his contract to look for the Titanic. The fact that he found it was an excellent cover story for the real purpose of his mission, and kept the Navy’s search and capabilities a secret from the Soviets. I won’t deny there’s a different kind of swashbuckling romance to the true story, but it definitely detracts from the “exploration for its own sake” aspect that Ballard peddled for 33 years.
In the late 90s, National Geographic breathlessly announced the discovery of a fossil that would be the “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds. But they somehow missed fairly obvious links in the fossil itself- which turned out to be glue joints from the 88 different pieces of various animals assembled by a Chinese farmer. The magazine retracted the story, and admitted they got caught up in the excitement over an animal that – let’s face it – looks awesome. Speaking of awesome looking, do you remember NatGeo’s T. Rex Autopsy, where dignity-free “scientists” cut into a fake tyrannosaur model for television cameras? That’s the kind of hard hitting natural science we usually expect from the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Sidenote: it’s called a necropsy when performed on animals. I don’t know what one calls it when it’s performed on fake animals. I also don’t know what it’s called when a National Geographic explorer-in-residence announces the discovery of a new dinosaur, and it turns out it might be a juvenile known dinosaur. The issue remains unresolved because they don’t know where the dinosaur was discovered since it was removed from China illegally.
In 2014, the National Geographic channel had to pull a series that dealt with excavating Nazi war graves. It was a huge disappointment, because who doesn’t like exploiting graves for entertainment? Zahi Hawass loves it. He’s the famously self-aggrandizing former Minister of Antiquities in Egypt. To be fair, the graves he exploited for his TV shows, clothing line, and branded hats were from Pharaonic Egypt, thousands of years older than the Nazi war graves. More importantly, Egyptian pyramids and tombs are super cool – that’s edutainment! Dr. Hawass knows this, and so did National Geographic, which named him an explorer-in-residence in 2001. Presumably, they didn’t explore his support of the fabulously corrupt Mubarak regime, or how much he was disliked by everyday Egyptians and fellow archaeologists. You might ask if they ignored all this and named Hawass an explorer-in-residence solely to gain exclusive access to Egyptian antiquities for a bunch of lucrative TV shows. The Justice Department did ask exactly that.
Am I cherry-picking just the embarrassing moments of this otherwise esteemed American institution? Maybe. Or maybe National Geographic’s acquisition by Fox is just the last step in a progression that began decades ago, and reached its nadir recently when the channel aired the third movie adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” books. If you lost track, Bill O’Reilly’s ghostwriter has now written five “killing” books, and they’re exactly the kind of history you expect under O’Reilly’s name. Which is to say, less history than heavy moralizing with a thick smear of bullshit. And National Geographic helpfully frames each one with their trademark yellow border.
National Geographic loves grave robbing, talking gorillas, fake dinosaurs, and dubious history because audiences love grave robbing, talking gorillas, fake dinosaurs, and dubious history. Audiences also love manufactured controversies, prattling heads, and the fictitious news stories of Fox News, the most popular of the cable news channels. Why not bring the two together? It’s been a long time coming.