Rupert Murdoch, the Australian mogul who owns a vast media empire encompassing, among other important holdings, 21st Century Fox and FOX News, has purchased a 73 percent share of the National Geographic Society’s media assets for $725 million. The society will join with Murdoch in running National Geographic Partners, which will henceforth produce commercial National Geographic media.
Most notably, this includes the society’s revered National Geographic Magazine, published since 1888. And while the society will supposedly continue to play a predominant role in generating the magazine’s content, there is worry that its new, profit-oriented owner will compromise its strong editorial stance, particularly given Murdoch’s denial of man-made climate change.
For years, National Geographic has been on the front lines of climate change reporting. Their articles express the severity of climate change, the urgency of addressing it and regularly call out deniers. And their role in this is crucial – of all the serious magazines devoted to scientific issues, only National Geographic has enough visibility for Americans to see it regularly while they’re in the supermarket checkout line.
FOX News, on the other hand, has been perhaps the single-most effective and relentless propaganda arm of the denialism movement. Murdoch himself is heavily invested in the oil industry, including serving as a board member of Genie Energy. It’s not unreasonable to wonder, given its new owner’s history and financial interests, whether National Geographic can continue delivering the kind of news that makes industry titans invest billions in counter-propaganda.
Statements from high-level National Geographic personnel have sounded, overall, cautiously optimistic. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports, “The one-word reaction from one of the magazine’s journalists: ‘Dread.’” Such is Murdoch’s reputation that even if he doesn’t mess with the magazine’s mission and coverage, the heartbroken backlash to his buying it was immediate on social media.
The NatGeo TV channel, which has been partially owned by FOX since it launched in 1997, is a good indicator that the skepticism is deserved. The channel has produced content that is well beneath the standards of the magazine. Beast Hunter, for instance, was a 2011 miniseries about cryptozoological myths like the Man Ape of Sumatra and the Mongolian Death Worm. While the magazine might indulge in such stories from time to time, they’re much more prominent on the network.
I Fucking Love Science founder Elise Andrew offered one of the more even, thoughtful discussions of the new partnership. Andrew writes of IFLS’s own move to profit-orientation, which has caused her to fret over expenditures like sending a correspondent to South Africa to cover the discovery of a new human ancestor. Such ventures are likely a net loss to IFLS financially. With shareholders at the helm, they can be difficult to justify. “Alternately,” Andrew writes, “yesterday’s ‘story’ on adding propane to cola took around 20 minutes to create, and has garnered enough page views since then to pay the bills for the next week.”
With all due respect to IFLS – which is a great resource for scientists, skeptics and the general public – it’s not in the same league as National Geographic. Nor are its shareholders in the same league as Rupert Murdoch. Andrew doesn’t make this insinuation exactly, but the distinction is an important one.
It’s entirely possible that trivial but buzzworthy stories can earn National Geographic enough revenue to continue giving grants to scientists and carrying out research on big projects. But more likely, the shareholders will decide they can do far better without such extravagances. The Society and the Partnership will be separate entities, and the Society will still be a nonprofit and free to give out grants. Unfortunately, it will likely no longer be completely free to use funds from what was surely its biggest moneymaker – the magazine – toward those grants. It will need approval from the majority of Partnership shareholders.
There is, perhaps, a thin silver lining. National Geographic is adored precisely because of its honest reporting and photography. To mess with the brand too much could render the magazine unprofitable, which will have made Murdoch’s investment a bad one.
It wouldn’t be the first time Murdoch has owned and made money off of properties that conflict with his worldview and political interests. The Fox Network put out Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s revamped Cosmos series, which included an easily understood segment on climate change. It also airs The Simpsons, which at one time was the great beacon of American satire and still routinely jabs at Murdoch and his news ventures.
But the segment on climate change was short; Cosmos was only a miniseries; and The Simpsons, for all its brilliance, could never be influential enough to do serious damage to an empire like Murdoch’s. National Geographic is a sustained operation, one which potentially poses a serious threat to Murdoch’s oil concerns and his biggest supporters in his other media ventures.
This may be generous, but for all the evil he has brought into the world, Murdoch is not necessarily out to destroy it. A more accurate statement might be that he just doesn’t give a damn about it one way or the other; it’s destruction is just a side effect of his money-making. The biggest risk in this sense to National Geographic might be if Murdoch somehow calculated that the magazine’s reporting on climate change will cost him more than $725 million in lost oil revenue, in which case it’d make financial sense for him to buy it just to kill it.
This is all perhaps too conjectural and conspiratorial. We owe it to the magazine and its stable of reporters, photographers, editors and scientists – most of whom not only had nothing to do with this deal, but almost surely resent it to their core – to give things a chance. Plenty of people have done good things despite their bosses. It’s a little too early for hysterics and declaring the magazine dead.
But there’s something unavoidably, surrealistically dark and depressing in one of the planet’s most dangerous enemies taking the reins on one of its most stalwart defenders. With the specter of Rupert Murdoch looming over it, even if nothing in the magazine changes it’ll never be the same again.