Climate Activists Want A Public Editor For Murdoch-Owned National Geographic

Climate activists are calling on National Geographic to hire a public editor to keep tabs on its editorial approach following the magazine's purchase by a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Murdoch has repeatedly made scientifically inaccurate comments about climate change, and recently lamented “alarmist nonsense” on the issue.

The National Geographic Society and 21st Century Fox announced last month an expansion of their current partnership to include National Geographic's cable channels, its flagship magazine, and other digital and social media.

As National Geographic explained, “Under the $725-million deal, Fox, which currently holds a majority stake in National Geographic's cable channels, will own 73 percent of the new media company, called National Geographic Partners. The National Geographic Society will own 27 percent.”

“We will now have the scale and reach to fulfill our mission long into the future,” National Geographic Society CEO Gary E. Knell said at the time. “The Society's work will be the engine that feeds our content creation efforts, enabling us to share that work with even larger audiences and achieve more impact. It's a virtuous cycle.”

In an interview with Media Matters shortly after the announcement of the deal, National Geographic editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg said she was “not concerned” about News Corp.'s history and its ties to Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets that routinely promote misinformation on climate change. “21st Century Fox is an enormously large creative global company that has lots of different properties operating underneath that umbrella,” Goldberg said at the time. Goldberg also stressed that James Murdoch -- not his father Rupert -- is the head of 21st Century Fox. (The younger Murdoch was installed as CEO of 21st Century Fox in July, while Rupert is now executive co-chairman of 21st Century with his other son, Lachlan.)

While both National Geographic and 21st Century Fox have pledged that National Geographic will maintain its editorial independence, at least three climate advocacy groups are urging National Geographic to hire a public editor to keep watch over its editorial product and ensure it remains a science-based news outlet, especially on the issue of climate change.

Online petitions from Climate Truth, Common Cause, and SumOfUs have drawn thousands of signatures urging National Geographic to bring in an independent observer to keep watch. The petitions were launched online shortly after the deal with 21st Century Fox was announced in September.

"[Rupert] Murdoch has a troubling history of editorial meddling, and there's no measures in place to assure his denial of climate science won't taint National Geographic's historically excellent coverage," the Climate Truth petition, which has gathered more than 25,000 signatures, states.

Brant Olson, Campaign Director for Climate Truth, said a public editor would help get concerns from readers to the editors.

“There is pretty widespread concern in the press and among our members after the announcement of the deal that one of the world's most well-respected brands of science is coming under control of a man who has not been shy about saying he doesn't believe in climate change,” Olson said. “Elsewhere, when we have had concerns about coverage of climate change, we have engaged their public editor.” 

Olson cited two issues that were recently addressed at other media outlets when public editors and ombudsmen were contacted: The New York Times' misuse of the phrase “climate skeptics”; and PBS member stations having oil billionaire David Koch on their boards.

“Having a public editor offers a forum for readers and others to discuss matters of editorial oversight and interference,” Olson added. “And why not do that at National Geographic? Historically, National Geographic has been fantastic and we hope that will continue in the future.”

The magazine's recent climate change issue, which was released online earlier this month, seems to take a fair approach, with stories on reducing carbon emissions, dangerous rising sea levels, and promoting wind and solar energy.

But not everyone is willing to take for granted that the climate change issue or the magazine's past climate coverage is a sign of things to come under Fox.

Common Cause Digital Campaign Organizer Jack Mumby said his group launched its petition for a public editor to help readers keep informed fairly.

“We believe that voters need a media ecosystem where scientific truth is accurately represented,” he said. “We rely on a media that gives voters the information they need to cast their ballots. We want to make sure National Geographic does everything it can to make sure it remains a source of accurate information.”

Noting its petition was posted in September, Mumby declares, “It will be up until the issue is resolved.” He said the goal is to “make sure that the magazine is editorially independent, we want to hear what their plan is to make sure this change in ownership does not change the independent and science-based journalism voters rely on.”

SumOfUs Senior Campaigner Katherine Tu also cited National Geographic's history of playing “a vital role in the fight against climate change,” and expressed concern that “Murdoch has a well-known history of meddling with media outlets that he owns and could undermine National Geographic's historically excellent coverage.”

More than 100,000 SumOfUs members have joined their campaign for a public editor, which Tu told Media Matters would protect the magazine's “independence” and “represent the interests of the public.” 

National Geographic says it has no plans to hire a public editor or ombudsman, claiming it deserves the benefit of the doubt and has no incentive to take a wrong turn in its climate coverage.

“We think our 127-year track record of science, research and storytelling in service illuminating the wonder, as well as the issues, of the planet speaks for itself, and find it interesting as well as kind of ironic that the petition was put forward the very week our all climate change issue was published,” National Geographic Society Chief Communications Officer Betty Hudson said via email. “That said, we're very comfortable with the robust governance guidelines that National Geographic Partners has in place, and would repeat our shared belief that the essence of the value of the enterprise is ultimately connected to our brand integrity.”

Hudson also referred to a statement the society issued to the petition groups after their online protests were posted, laying out how 21st Century Fox and National Geographic plan to maintain “editorial autonomy and mutual institutional respect”:

National Geographic has had a nearly two decade long relationship with 21st Century Fox, and during that time has enjoyed editorial autonomy and mutual institutional respect, which we fully expect to continue going forward.  The terms of the transaction include an expanded and specific governance framework designed to ensure that the content, publications and activities of NG Partners remain supportive of the mission of NGS and consistent with the National Geographic brand.

National Geographic Partners will be governed by an eight person board comprised of an equal number of representatives from the Society and 21CF.  NGS President and CEO Gary Knell will serve as first Chair, a role that will alternate annually. Under the trademark license, NG Partners must adhere to a 300+ page Standards Guide that articulates the principles of the National Geographic Society as well as its content vision. The Society has the right to review and approve the NGPartners annual content plan as well as the annual marketing plan, and has the right to remove the Chief Executive Officer and/or the Chief Marketing Officer should brand integrity be compromised. 

But all involved have spoken to the shared belief that the very value of the enterprise in which the Partners are investing resides in that brand integrity, and anything that undermines or dilutes that integrity damages the institution, as well as the investment.