The National Geographic Buyout: Evolution or Assassination?

Rupert Murdoch now owns 73 percent of National Geographic. What does this mean for the organization's future? 

Like many of my generation, my living room was filled with stacks of those unforgettable yellow-covered magazines, each offering a unique and, at the time, unprecedented glimpse into a world that one would never dream existed beyond New Jersey. African women with unimaginably stretched necks, active volcanoes on remote islands, training drills of Asian armies — for a kid in the '70s, National Geographic was a very inexpensive education nowhere available in the suburban public school system.

So when, in my late 20s, I was offered the opportunity to DJ a number of events for the organization at its D.C. headquarters, I didn’t have to think too hard. By then NatGeo was a shadow of its former self, although one with enough clout and staying power to remain front and center in magazine aisles, still producing well-researched articles with those photographs, some of the best in the world. 

I got to DJ the wedding and book release party of one of the company’s head photographers; DJ holiday parties; and then, when it expanded into world music, interview to lead that initiative. I didn’t get that job — I wasn’t willing to move to D.C., as much as I loved the prospect of the job. A friend and colleague did take over that role, and for a few years my photography and music articles appeared on the newly launched site.

One of today’s major issues, climate change, has been dutifully covered by NatGeo; an entire section is devoted to our shifting world on its website.

At the time, I was confused at what seemed to be its "one foot in, one out" relationship to music. There was a budget, although relatively small. I was told that the board’s focus was, over a century since its inception, still focused on archaeology and anthropology; they were not running full-steam into the digital future. Seven or eight years ago, my work with NatGeo ended, though even today my favorite Instagram feed features the magazine’s photographers. And in my office remains a stack, albeit much smaller, of issues that pique my interest, as the writing and photography remains top-notch.

One of today’s major issues, climate change, has been dutifully covered by NatGeo; an entire section is devoted to our shifting world on its website. In a country where, amazingly, a percentage of the population doesn’t "believe" in global warming, NatGeo has done what it does best: the merging of science and culture, with photography and video to show what’s happening in real time. While archaeological expeditions are what made the company famous, it is really this insightful gaze at the planet — its ecology, its people, its cultures — that has made the magazine an important media outlet since 1888. 

Staying relevant is a gargantuan task in modern media. When once-respectable news outlets have to resort to "reporting" on celebrity tweets and selfies just to keep eyeballs peering, there’s a problem with our media chain. The organization, sponsors, and viewers are all to blame. This dilemma is not limited to what we watch online and on television. No brand escapes this fate.

Everyone knows that Fox staff members have daily talking points, regardless of how close to reality those sound bites are. Fox has an agenda that it pursues at the expense of truth.

NatGeo’s television channel has long been broadcast on Rupert Murdoch’s cable networks. Part of this is, I was told, because no other network was willing to pick those shows up. (This was a decade ago; I saw no contracts or anything of that nature.) This was part of the organization’s survival strategy, by necessity. So it’s hard to tell exactly why the nonprofit decided to sell 73 percent of ownership to Murdoch. It could very well have been by necessity as well. All I can find at the moment is the directors at NatGeo praising the deal, which should not come as a surprise after a $725 million buyout.

But this news is troublesome. Everyone knows that Fox staff members have daily talking points, regardless of how close to reality those sound bites are. Fox has an agenda that it pursues at the expense of truth. It is not so much a news organization as a political platform, something increasingly true on both Right and Left.

Will NatGeo remain immune to such pandering? Hard to imagine. A climate change denier buying one of the leading organizations providing the public with information on climate change is not a recipe I’d like to sample. One of the beautiful aspects of scientific consensus is that it’s not dependent upon beliefs. Data speak and we, hopefully, listen. Honestly listen.

When science is corrupted by beliefs, though, well that’s when things become dangerous. And depressing. That’s the emotion I felt when I learned about the buyout. For my 40 years on this Earth, NatGeo has been an important part of my education. I’m going to guess that it will still produce incredible content moving forward. How honest with the evidence some of that content will be, however, is something we all now need to take into consideration. 


Derek Beres, a Los Angeles-based author, music producer, and yoga instructor, looks at a range of issues affecting the world's various spiritual communities in an attempt to sift through hyperbole and find truly universal solutions to prevalent issues facing humanity in the 21st century. 

Image: The Washington Post / Getty Images

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