No, National Geographic Isn’t Suddenly Conservative/Religious

No, National Geographic Isn’t Suddenly Conservative/Religious December 8, 2015
nat geo
The cover of the most recent NatGeo issue


The top of Reddit’s /r/atheism is currently graced by a post titled “WTF… National Geographic runs a 30-page story in the Dec. 2015 issue about the Virgin Mary & her alleged miracles,” linking to a Catholic news site that reports on the lead topic of the latest National Geographic issue. The top comment on the post reads “here’s why,” followed only by a link to an article reporting on the recent acquisition of National Geographic by 21st Century Fox, the massive media corporation founded by conservative bogeyman Rupert Murdoch. Other comments bemoan this new (purported) religious turn or legitimization of Christianity.

Similar refrains popped up recently about another recent National Geographic issue, “Strange But True: Secrets of the Supernatural Revealed”—the first after the acquisition. For example, the title of a widely-shared post from HistoryBuff makes sure to specify it as the “New Murdoch-owned National Geographic’s ‘Supernatural’ Issue,” as did Jerry Conye’s post over at Why Evolution is True.

Yet perennial skeptical website Snopes was quick to point out the fallacy of the association between the Fox-NatGeo venture and the topic of the issue—noting, among things, that the production of an individual issue like this is a months-long process that was surely underway long before the Fox-NatGeo venture. And to this we might also add that the connection between the two isn’t new: the National Geographic Channel began with a partnership with Fox in 1997.

Further, even from just reading the description of the contents of the issue (as taken from the HistoryBuff post), it’s clear that the issue seeks to look at these purportedly supernatural phenomena, believed by many cultures—monsters, ghosts, etc.—in a context of science-based hypotheses and evidence.

And it seems that it’s somewhat the same with the Mary issue. While I haven’t looked through the entire issue yet, I think it’s clear that it approaches the veneration of Mary, and the beliefs associated with this, as a (cross-)cultural phenomenon, first and foremost—one that takes on many different shapes across many different nations and cultures. That is to say, its focus on the varied and colorful shape of Marian devotion around the world can be a sort of window into culture as a whole: something that’s been NatGeo‘s calling card for some time now. (Not to mention also uniquely suited for the sort of photography that’s come to define National Geographic.)

While there might be certain things to criticize NatGeo and other publications on—in terms of participating in, say, a wider sort of titular sensationalism that plagues media as a whole, as well as a calculated vagueness or ambiguity designed to be as unoffensive as possible to the widest demographic, etc.—it may be the case that when we look at the substance of the matter here, this isn’t anything for us to worry about.

[Edit:] This was mentioned by Snopes, but another part of the conspiracy has centered on the layoffs that came along with Fox’s acquisition of NatGeo. There seems to have been some confusion between National Geographic magazine and the larger National Geographic Society as a whole here. The Snopes article notes that “[o]ne hundred and eighty employees [of the NatGeo Society] received pink slips in the downsizing blitz; subsequent rumors claimed most or all were fact-checkers. That was false, and likely stemmed from a portion of coverage in the Washington Post.” Turning to this coverage in the Washington Post, we learn that these (“several”) fact checkers did not even work for NatGeo magazine itself, but rather the NeoGeo Channel.

Finally, as for a breakdown of which departments of The NatGeo Society were affected by the layoffs, it was noted in a Washington Times article that

Only four employees will lose their jobs at National Geographic magazine and its digital newsroom, said Declan Moore, a veteran National Geographic Society executive who will become chief executive of the Fox partnership, known as National Geographic Partners. . . . dozens more [in The NatGeo Society] will be laid off in departments and services that Fox will provide to the partnership: legal, accounting, personnel and technology, among others.

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