The National Geographic Channel is under attack after a camera crew for its reality series Border Security joined an immigration raid in Vancouver last week. The presence of the cameras may have violated privacy and affected the intensity of the raid.
Although I've loved writing for the National Geographic magazine, I think the criticism is justified. Sadly, the bigger story is worse.
It must be baldly stated: The National Geographic Society, through several channels that are now its primary voice, is using its once-honourable name to produce misleading shows that can cause harm to children.
Over the past decade, an amoral cynicism has taken hold on many non-fiction cable channels that built their brands as educational. This has led to programs that are so misleading they often undermine educational goals. These programs are now directed at young adults but will be seen and absorbed by children. National Geographic is the ultimate symbol of this, because its standards were so high.
The National Geographic Society was once a stickler for facts, and National Geographic magazine famously had the most demanding fact-checkers. We writers chafed: "That wasn't a fact, it was a metaphor!" But we were proud of that rigour. We knew future historians could trust our work. Schools and parents could, too.
The magazine fights hard to maintain its integrity – successfully, for now. But the channel doesn't seem to care. Like competitor Animal Planet, which has a series about Bigfoot in which people listen to recordings of coyotes and say things like "Yup, that's a 'squatch, all right," the National Geographic Channel seems to have abandoned its principles.
The U.S. channel, for instance, has heavily promoted a series on the pursuit of UFOs, visiting sites of long-debunked events with excitement. There's also a show that the Canadian version of the channel calls Mystery 360, which seems to be about taking ghost stories seriously.
The approach is sneaky: It's as if a journalist doing a story on the planet gave equal time to flat-earthers. "On the one hand, photos from space; on the other hand, it's flat out your window." If it's about ghosts or UFOs, the scripts eventually say a quiet "Probably not," but the music and imagery screams "OMG!" After seeing this, what child would go to sleep feeling safe?
Similarly breathless shows drum up fear about highways, the drug war or, worse, other cultures – the U.S. channel, for instance, has run series that promote caricatures of vulnerable minority groups such as the Roma and the Hutterites.
Once you're scared witless, better get ready: The end is coming. In one clip from National Geographic's Doomsday Preppers, the narrator describes, as if it's a good thing, a teenager learning to throw knives. The segment then shows her shooting a military-style rifle at a human model that bleeds. The film cuts back and forth from the teenager's face to the bloody target. After this, what child could go to sleep at all?
The National Geographic now has what must be a very lucrative series called Megafactories that appears to glorify one brand with each show. And what was the product glorified throughout St. Patrick's Day on the Canadian channel, accessible to kids all that Sunday? Alcohol. And I'm not talking about green fuel. All day, in one long show after another, the National Geographic Channel scheduled shows that promoted Guinness, Heineken, Jack Daniels and Bacardi.
Ghosts, UFOs, scary cultures, doomsday, booze. After this, what child would go to bed sober?
"It's a business," someone at National Geographic said, excusing it as the market. But National Geographic built its brand as a solid source of information good for all ages, and that's a social contract, more important than money. It's a food market we trusted that's giving us rotten fruit.
There's internal resistance; I've seen it – good people inside who know that exciting factual entertainment doesn't have to be misleading. You can help those people. If you're a parent or a teacher or anyone who cares, write to these channels. Fill their website comment pages with your dismay. Don't buy the bad fruit.
Places such as National Geographic were once like the village that helps parents raise a child. But the village has turned on the child, just because of the shine of a coin.
Michael Parfit has written feature articles for National Geographic magazine and directed news features for the U.S. National Geographic Channel. He is co-director of the documentary The Whale and co-author, with his wife, Suzanne Chisholm, of the forthcoming book The Lost Whale: The True Story of an Orca Named Luna.