In a full-issue article on Australia that ran in 1916, aboriginal Australians were called “savages” who “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
( C.P. Scott (Man), H.E. Gregory (WOMAN)
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s remarkably easy for Google to change our view of the world's boundaries. It’s a lot tougher to shift our impression of the world's peoples. Since first launching in 1888, National Geographic has been serving up striking photojournalism that trains its readers about how to think about far-flung places and peoples. Some of that thinking is been illuminating and broadening, some of it reductive and dismissive. Now, as the nation takes an increasingly hard look at its racist perspectives and policies, National Geographic has turned its focus toward how we might have developed them and what they’ve produced. The Magazine’s first step, taking a deep dive into its own archives and finding some troubling coverage in its past. Susan Goldberg has been editor-in-chief at National Geographic since 2014. She understood that she couldn’t move forward on the project until the Magazine had examined its own often troublesome history.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: We set out in a colonial world, that’s when we started, and covered things through that lens. You know, as recently as a year ago, we, we did a story about the run-up to the Second World War, the fact that our coverage of Germany was not as critical --
-- as it should have been.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think you’re putting that mildly.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Yes, I, I am, actually.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, you’re not a stranger to self-examination but because of the time of National Geographic's birth and the demographics of the National Geographic Society, I mean, these were very colonial enterprises. They regarded themselves as not just different from the people that they met but quite explicitly superior.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: And we really thought it was important to get some outside views on this, and so, we found John Edward Mason, a wonderful historian at the University of Virginia, to help with this examination. Dr. Mason is not just a historian but an expert in Africa and in photography, so that is the crossroads of so much of our storytelling, so he was ideally suited to help us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he dove into your archives and what did he discover that you found most [AUDIBLE BREATH] excruciating?
SUSAN GOLDBERG: [LAUGHS] Well, um, to me, one of the most painful things that he found was a caption on a story that we ran in 1916 about some Aboriginal people in Australia and the caption talked about them really in subhuman terms, being the lowest of intelligence of any people. That’s a tough thing to look at in your own archive but I think it's important that we do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1941, the Magazine referred to black California cotton workers as “pickaninnies.” That’s a lot later than 1916.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: That is a lot later. Too often, when we looked at people of color in the United States at all, it was in terms of their being laborers or domestic workers. And when we looked at people of color all over the world, it was through the lens of them being exotics, happy hunters, tribal swordsmen, native dancers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have also critiqued your publication for its sins of omission not to highlight real racial tension in the US or elsewhere. And Mason offered a tale of two stories, one in ’62 and one in ’77, both in South Africa.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Right, 1962 when we go to South Africa, just two years after the shooting of 69 black South Africans, some as they fled from the police. These were shootings that horrified the world. And our story didn't even mention this shooting, which is very difficult to get your head around. One of the things that Dr. Mason said was that the story didn't have the voices of black South Africans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s that great quote. He found it bizarre to consider what the editors, the writers and the photographers had to consciously not see.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: And then when we get to 1977, 15 years later, we go back to South Africa. And, you know, it’s not a perfect story, as he points out, but it is a story that has the voices of the opposition. It has the voices of black South Africans. There's a picture of Winnie Mandela with her fist raised. There is a discussion of apartheid. So it is a very, very different take on what's going on in that country and represents reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then if you flash forward to your time, you handed the cameras at one point to Haitians to document their own experience.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Well, in 2015, in addition to sending a photographer who has spent a great deal of time in Haiti and with Haitian people, we gave cameras to a group of young Haitian photographers and we said, photograph your world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: And I think that’s increasingly important for us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it would be easy to write off some of the more egregious oversights of National Geographic in its past as a symptom of its times but National Geographic was lagging even behind its peers from the same era, such as Life or the New York Times, the Washington Post or, or Look magazine. Do you think that its colonial white-gloved origins acted as a brake on seeing the world as it truly was?
SUSAN GOLDBERG: You know, I'm not really sure but the other organizations that you named, they viewed themselves as covering the news. I think that right now we view ourselves much more as a news organization than we ever have, not that we’re covering daily events but what we’re trying to do is cover things that are topical, that are important and then put them in proper perspective. And I'm not sure that decades and decades ago there was that sense about needing to cover things that felt topical.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a sense, perhaps, that science was an academic tidy process that was best kept clear of news. And we understand now that there, there’s no separation between what is going on in the world and all the forces that power those changes, many of which are scientific.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: And so, we don't cover politics in a daily way but we do cover the outcome of policies. For example, when the administration pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords, we’re going to step back and take a look at what is going to be the impact of that decision? And we write constantly about subjects like sustainability and scientific innovation in a very timely way because we think that is right in our wheelhouse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, of course, you are no longer a monthly.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: We have 420 million social followers, and we send them news and information every single day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Four-hundred and twenty (420) million?
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Four-hundred and twenty million. We have the largest social following of any media in the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow, that’s kind of a buried lead, isn’t it?
SUSAN GOLDBERG: And so, I am not trying to make excuses for the sins of the past but I do think that today's modern storytelling tools, as well as a remaking of our brand from reverence to relevance, as we like to say, has changed our storytelling. And we want to show places as they really are, not as they are in some fantasy or in some picture book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about what I think is the main controversy about this latest issue devoted to race. The cover picture shows beautiful biracial fraternal twins, one white, one black. Rebecca Onion wrote in Slate that she felt like the twins were being used as an oddity. And Gene Demby, an amazing reporter for NPR's Code Switch, said that it seemed to send the message that race is not important anymore, we’re all one, you know, that it conveyed a kind of a kumbaya-ness, which is so far from the reality, the kind of thing that makes liberals feel good but can really frustrate people who want to see the consequences of racism front and center.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Well, I couldn’t disagree more. The story, obviously, talks about the parents’ hopes and it quotes the twins talking about how sometimes people stare at them but it doesn't bother them, and that is one level of storytelling. But the whole issue, including a wonderful story by Betsy Kolbert about the science of race, really talks about how these small genetic tweaks result, of course, in very different lives. And we look at those hard statistics that show how people of color don't have the same opportunities that people who are white do, whether it comes to education, to income, to health, to longevity, how race, while it may be a social construct, plays itself out every single day in our politics, in where we can live and even in our sense of self.
You know, race is a tough subject to cover. A lot of people don't want to deal with it. So we've got to figure out what are ways that we can invite people in to having a civilized conversation. The twins aren’t the end of the conversation, the twins are the beginning of the conversation.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
SUSAN GOLDBERG: Well, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Susan Goldberg is the editor-in-chief of National Geographic.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, history resides in maps, photos, journalism and even memoirs. For instance, Churchill wrote his own slanted story, and that’s the one we remember.