Will Rupert Murdoch ‘Dumb Down the Science’ at National Geographic?
In September, National Geographic and 21st Century Fox announced the expansion of their 18-year partnership to form National Geographic Partners, a for-profit venture that 21st Century Fox bought for $725 million in exchange for effective control of the National Geographic Society’s media brands. When the news of the merger broke, many were, shall we say, concerned about 21st Century Fox founder Rupert Murdoch’s influence over a revered scientific publication.
Rupert Murdoch owning National Geographic is like putting Dr. Kevorkian in charge of a hospice.
— Cooper (@TweetsofCooper) September 10, 2015
Even National Geographic’s own staff members raised concerns. “I think everybody has some concerns and nobody is quite sure what it means,” Brian Skerry, a wildlife photographer for National Geographic for the nearly 18 years, told the Guardian after news of the merger broke. “I can only speak for myself, but I believe we were all thinking the same thing. National Geographic has been autonomous … pretty much forever. It came as a huge surprise.”
In its 127 years of publication, National Geographic has been a nonprofit organization—until now. “We now will have the scale and reach to continue to fulfill our mission long into the future,” says National Geographic. And CEO Greg Knell promised that “there won’t be an [editorial] turn in a direction that is different form the National Geographic heritage.”
Murdoch also assuaged fears of changes to editorial content. “I also want to assure you that we will remain fully committed to maintaining the editorial autonomy and integrity of the Geographic,” he said at a closed-door meeting he hosted on Sept. 9 with Knell. “We demonstrated that strong commitment and respect for what National Geographic stands for during our 18-year partnership, and nothing we are announcing today changes that.”
Another longstanding contributor to the magazine, John Stanmeyer, confirmed that “little to nothing is going to change.” The Guardian reported that in an hour-long conference call with heads of the magazine and colleagues in September, Stanmeyer assured the team that editorial content “will be driven by the National Geographic Society. No other entity.”
Photographer Skerry was pleased with the way the leadership assuaged fears over the acquisition, but he added, “The integrity of the staff and contributors is above reproach. We aren’t the kind of people to do what we don’t want to do. If things went south, we wouldn’t work here anymore. If we were told to dumb down the science, I don’t think that’s going to fly.”
I give National Geographic 18 months before publishing its first piece of climate change denial.
— Greg Stolze (@GregStolze) September 9, 2015
— Barbara Weibel (@holeinthedonut) September 10, 2015
But many more questioned the partnership again this week as National Geographic announced on Tuesday they would be laying off about 180 staff members. That accounts for nine percent of its 2,000 employees.
— Cory Doctorow RIGHT-CLICKER MENTALITY (@doctorow) November 5, 2015
“The National Geographic Society and the National Geographic Channels are in the process of reorganizing in order to move forward strategically following the closing [of] the National Geographic Partners deal, which is expected to occur in mid-November,” a spokesperson for National Geographic Society told the Guardian.
Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter to reassure people that National Geographic is doing just fine despite the layoffs. He said only four people were laid off from the actual magazine, while the remaining cuts came from the nonprofit organization, National Geographic Society.
Nat Geo 4 people let go at magazine, remainder by Society in administrative, service department.
Editorial staff, leadership firmly in place
— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) November 4, 2015
Still, many people don’t seem convinced.