So this article, about layoffs at National Geographic, has been making the rounds, and when it showed up in my Facebook news feed, I took the (click) bait.
And I gotta say, the name of the website shouldn’t be If You Only News; it should be “If You Only Read the News.”
Right off the hop, I was struck by the flaming irony that a piece about the laying-off of fact checkers starts off by misstating an important fact. Elizabeth Preston writes:
In September, Rupert Murdoch purchased the majority shares in National Geographic Society, making the legendary publication a new “sister” (perhaps step-sister) to Murdoch’s beloved Fox News.
For the record, Rupert Murdoch did not buy the National Geographic Society. To clarify: according to the Society, 21st Century Fox did purchase the iconic magazine (and this is a rare occasion when the word iconic isn’t misapplied; the magazine’s famous yellow border is the Society’s logo) as well as a number of other properties, including websites, book and map publishing, and social media platforms.
These, along with the NatGeo TV channels — in which Fox already owned a majority stake — will operate under the umbrella of a new company, National Geographic Partners. Fox will own 73% of the stock in that venture; the National Geographic Society will own 27%.
What does the NGS get out of this? A big chunk of cash: $725 million, most of which will be used to double the size of the nonprofit’s endowment. That’ll fund a fair bit of “work in science, exploration, and education.”
But does this mean, as Preston takes for granted, that the magazine’s editorial policy will be altered to suit the right-wing, climate change–denying Rupert Murdoch, as — according to at least one study — happened at the Wall Street Journal?
Well, here’s a wrinkle: the new venture will be headed by Declan Moore, a twenty-year veteran of NatGeo. And he’ll report to a board of directors that will be evenly split between representatives of NGS and Fox. The chairmanship of the board will alternate between NGS and Fox.
Why should we take Preston at her word? What are her bona fides? According to the bionote at the end of her article, she is “a thirty-something wife and mother of three living in Florida” and a “fierce liberal.” Which speaks volumes about If You Only News: a Florida mom who is a “fierce liberal” gets a platform. On the same site, a Florida mom who isn’t one becomes a target of derision. My takeaway is that both Florida moms may be well-meaning, but they also seem to be low-information reactionaries.
In search of a more reasoned analysis, I came across a blog on the Guardian’s website. The author, Emily Bell, is a British academic; currently, she’s a professor at Columbia University’s journalism school and director of the school’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Her biographical note makes no mention of any offspring, but she has been a journalist at the Observer and the Guardian, from which I infer that she may well be a liberal, if not a “fierce” one.
Bell writes that Rupert Murdoch’s son James is the CEO at 21st Century Fox, and this is significant in a couple of ways. For one, when he ran Sky Broadcasting in the UK, he made the company carbon neutral — not something Rupert would give a flying fig about. He didn’t do this because he’s a tree-hugger bent on saving the planet, but because it made business sense. Which suggests he’s more focused on the bottom line than influencing the political agenda. Bell also harks back to the phone-hacking scandal at News of the World and other Murdoch newspapers. This went on under James Murdoch’s nose, and Bell suggests that his “lack of engagement (and judgment) … is characteristic of how little he is drawn to editorial process or indeed journalists.”
Finally, Bell makes this interesting point:
The expectation, however, that the TV, magazine and digital income will be enough to cross-subsidise the National Geographic Society, which funds education and research, is an inversion of the existing wisdom. The media market, generally speaking, thinks charitable cross-subsidy needs to go into journalism rather than flow away from it.
In other words, the for-profit National Geographic Partners is likely to depend on research funded by the nonprofit National Geographic Society.
I also found this news item interesting: a week or so after the deal was announced, National Geographic Channel announced it would air season 2 of an Emmy Award–winning series, Years of Living Dangerously. The writer of the article, Joe Romm (a fellow at the Center for American Progress and the founding editor of the well-regarded blog Climate Progress — sorry, I don’t know if he’s a dad or a “fierce” liberal) calls the series the “first documentary series devoted to climate change ever to appear on a major network or premium cable.”
This show aired — and will continue to air — on National Geographic Channel, a channel of which 21st Century Fox was a majority owner.
Romm also suggests that James Murdoch is committed to environmental issues, and his wife even more so.
The Fox–NatGeo partnership re-entered the news this week because the deal has closed. Significant job losses are being announced, and that sucks. Reactionary liberals are holding this development up as proof that the evil Fox empire is going to “Foxify” National Geographic, dumbing it down to pander to the base of cranky, low-information viewers whose worldview is informed by Fox News Channel — or such National Geographic Channel offerings as Locked Up Abroad.
But hey, you don’t need to be a Rocket City Redneck to know that print media of all sorts are in a downward financial spiral. NatGeo‘s circulation was nearly eleven million in 1989; today it’s around four million. Even if the magazine had been sold to the charitable foundation that publishes Mother Jones, there would’ve been layoffs.
I’m beyond liberal. I’m also quite fierce about it. Liberals like to self-identify as open-minded, more flexible in their thinking, evidence-based rather than “faith-based.” Which is the problem I have with Preston’s article. To me, it’s as closed-minded, inflexible and as uninformed by evidence as you can get.
Preston describes herself as “the Facebook friend that rains on the urban legend parade with fact checking.” Hey, there’s something we have in common. In the course of these thousand words or so, I feel like I’m raining on her parade.