Do Mass Layoffs at National Geographic Portend an Erosion of Scientific Integrity?

Print Share on LinkedIn More
National Geographic and FOX

tishomir / Shutterstock.com

November 3, 2015; Washington Post

It would be absurd if it were not so ugly, but it appears that the fears that some observers had about Fox buying the National Geographic media group were not in the least unfounded. In an email to the entire staff of the National Geographic Society on Monday, its CEO, Gary Knell, suggested to staff to “Please watch your inbox for important information about your employment status,” since the enterprise’s restructuring under the new majority ownership of 21st Century Fox, controlled, of course, by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch is an unbeliever where climate change is concerned and observers have long been worried about his influence on the issue in that he controls so much of the press. The National Geographic might have been considered something of a counterweight before the sale.

On Tuesday, indeed, the society made the biggest layoff in its history, letting nine percent of its workforce—or 180 people—go. Others have been offered buyouts. The Society also announced it would freeze its pension plan for eligible employees and eliminate medical coverage for future retirees.

Knell wrote, even as the institution got ready to lay off a group of fact checkers, “Looking ahead, I am confident National Geographic’s mission will be fulfilled in powerful, new and impactful ways, as we continue to change the world through science, exploration, education and storytelling.”

When the Society sold the flagship magazine and its stake in the National Geographic cable TV channel for $725 million in September, many expressed concern about the potential for erosion of the scientific integrity of the media group. Reverb Press wrote:

The National Geographic Society has long stood for science, research, and investigation. Murdoch’s companies have long stood against all three. The two positions would be in conflict, save Murdoch’s company is firmly in control. The editorial changes will therefore be severe, and erode the 127 years of publication excellence. For the men and women who brought National Geographic to worldwide prominence, the termination of employment is a tragic end both for hard-working people, and for National Geographic itself.

A spokeswoman for National Geographic said the widespread layoffs were not originally part of the deal. “We wanted to take care of our long-serving employees,” M.J. Jacobsen said.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Bob Gort

    I’ve wondered how the $725 million can both be claimed as a smart move by National Geographic (get the money now before value erodes) and a smart move by Murdoch (how much leverage does he get, given he already has the TV channel and will doubtless lose subscribers like me).