For 42 years, Grosvenor had fun Retiring: The head of the National Geographic Society is preparing to hand over the reins to someone outside the family, though he'll stay on as chairman of the board.

Sun Journal

January 28, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As Gil Grosvenor reminisced about his years at the top of the National Geographic Society last week, several times he began a sentence like this: "What's most fun about this job is "

Only, each time the sentence ended differently.

In order, the most fun was accompanying National Geographic divers to the site of an ancient shipwreck off the Dominican Republic, or watching the magazine's remarkable photographers at work in the field, or hearing firsthand accounts of National Geographic Society explorations from the lips of legendary scientists with names such as Fossey and Leakey and Cousteau.

As Mr. Grosvenor recounts these episodes, he sounds less like the retiring 65-year-old president of a venerable American institution than a child returning from a carnival and bursting to describe the day's marvelous sights.

In Mr. Grosvenor's case, this sense of wonder comes honestly.

If it is not quite fair to say that the National Geographic Society has been a family business, it is certainly true that it has been the business of his family.

His great-great-grandfather, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, helped found the society in 1888 and was its first president; his great-grandfather, Alexander Graham Bell, was the second.

His grandfather, Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, was the magazine's first full-time editor (a position he held for 55 years), and his father, Melville Bell Grosvenor, was its third.

Those family ties to the National Geographic may now be on the verge of breaking. On May 1, Reg Murphy, a former publisher of The Sun, will succeed Mr. Grosvenor as president and chief executive officer of the National Geographic Society, which in addition to its yellow-bordered magazine also produces television documentaries, books and maps.

Mr. Grosvenor, who has been with the society for 42 years, will continue as chairman of the society's Board of Trustees.

Whatever skills Mr. Murphy will bring to the job, he will not personify the society's rich history in the way a Grosvenor might. The family's reverence for scientific discovery and adventure was passed from generation to generation like an heirloom.

Robert Peary, whose expedition to the North Pole was financed by the National Geographic Society, was discussed endlessly at the dinner table.

Richard Byrd and his descendants were family friends, as were Lowell Thomas and Alexander Wetmore, the ornithologist.

"These people were part of the institution and therefore part of the family," Mr. Grosvenor says.

If the Geographic's past is still embraced proudly by the society, not all of its traditions are. The magazine in particular, while unquestionably beautiful to look at, has never been considered to be on the journalistic edge, at least in its writing.

"I would say it's very popular and very middle-class," says Donald Fry, a writing consultant long associated with the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"It doesn't have much of an edge, though it is very evocative writing in terms of putting the reader there."

An age-old criticism of the magazine was that its sense of wonder blinded it to unpleasantness. Indeed, for many years, it openly practiced the maxim that if it didn't have anything nice to say about people and places, then it wouldn't say anything at all.

That take on the world led to upbeat characterizations of Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy before World War II.

'Shocking distortions'

The criticism continued even under Mr. Grosvenor's editorship. In April 1974, National Geographic cheerily reported on the content lives of Jews in Syria.

The American Jewish Committee responded by wondering how content Syrian Jews could be while many among them were harassed, beaten and tortured.

It called the National Geographic's reporting "shocking in the magnitude of its distortions."

In 1993, two American anthropologists published their findings after analyzing the magazine from 1950 to 1986.

Co-author Jane Collins, of the University of Wisconsin, said that it "presented a romanticized vision and most difficult issues were swept under the rug."

Indeed, many believe the defining act under Mr. Grosvenor was his firing in 1990 of editor Wilbur Garrett, who was credited with nudging the magazine toward more provocative subjects, such as profiles of Iron Curtain countries and stories on pollution and animal poaching.

"He wanted fairly hard-hitting reporting on those topics," says one writer from that era, who did not want to be identified. "He wanted outside writers who were professionals and seasoned and stylish."

Mr. Grosvenor denies that the magazine shies from difficult subjects, but he says his proudest accomplishment is maintaining the magazine's scrupulous objectivity, which he insists gives National Geographic an uncommonly high credibility.

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