Common Cause and Free Press are among the groups calling for an outside "public" editor—essentially an independent ombudsman—at National Geographic now that the magazine, as well as the TV networks and digital properties, is majority owned by 21st Century Fox.
In September, 21st Century Fox expanded its partnership with National Geographic beyond the TV channels to include its other media properties, including the iconic magazine. Fox is the majority owner of that expanded joint venture with 73% to Nat Geo's 27%.
A National Geographic spokesperson responded that there are "robust governance" guidelines for the joint venture in place and that anything that undermined the integrity of the brand would also hurt Fox's investment.
The groups say they are concerned that the magazine's climate change coverage will be compromised by 21st Century Fox executive chairman Rupert Murdoch's public stands on climate change, but are calling for editorial independence at all Nat Geo properties, print, online and TV. The petition is being circulated the same week National Geographic's all climate change issue is coming out.
They point out PBS and the New York Times, among others, have appointed outside editors.
The groups are circulating an online petition calling for the outside editor and featuring a mock Nat Geo cover of Rupert Murdoch as a climate change denier. At press time they had over 25,000 signatures toward a goal of 30,000 and said they plan to deliver the petition to National Geographic headquarters in Washington later this month. "We're very comfortable with the robust governance guidelines the JV 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," said Betty Hudson, chief communications officer, National Geographic Society.
"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," Hudson says Nat Geo told the groups. "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."