Reporters are to receive approval (for stories) from their editor, who will obtain National Science Foundation concurrence for all proposed stories to insure [sic] they meet U.S. government standards. — Guidelines for Editorial Employees of the Antarctic Sun.Except, there are no written standards given by the National Science Foundation. The Antarctic Sun is an information outlet with significant access to the U.S. Antarctic Program, employing professional journalists and reaching members of the general public and even world media organizations. But the NSF sees the weekly newspaper as a “house organ,” analogous to a corporate newsletter providing the company line on events.
“There are times when it is better to not say anything,” said NSF’s Antarctic information manager Guy Guthridge.
Former editors of the Sun, including myself, aren’t so sure, though we agreed to the restrictions as a condition of our employment. Current Sun editors were unavailable for comment.
“There were some NSF managers who took the role as information flow manager to a level that was well above and beyond what was probably good for the NSF and for the people working (in Antarctica),” said Sandy Colhoun, who was the editor of the paper during the 1997-1998 and 1998-1999 austral summer seasons.
Josh Landis was my colleague when we were editors of the paper in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons. When asked about press freedom in Antarctica, Landis said, “It doesn’t exist.”
Landis qualified that by saying he’s not sure there needs to be press freedom within the U.S. Antarctic Program. “It’s a program to execute a series of goals,” Landis said. That focus, he said, “does create frustrations for journalists,” adding that we learned about restrictions during the hiring process and during employment orientation. “I felt like I knew what the rules were going in,” Landis said.
The Sun’s planning and reporting are similar to any newspaper. Though NSF and program officials would make suggestions about interesting subjects to cover, “they never told us what to write,” Landis said. And Sun reporters do get to travel around the continent at times, reporting on research and logistics at field outposts, though NSF controls who goes where and when.
It is near the end of the production process that NSF’s power becomes clear. The paper publishes a note about itself indicating that it is “funded by the National Science Foundation,” and further saying, “NSF reviews and approves material before publication.”
The senior NSF representative on the continent reviews a draft copy of the paper and has carte blanche to change content and even kill stories before publication. Though some in that position are helpful, all have the power to “kill anything for any reason and there’s no recourse,” Landis said.
Some stories did not get killed, though they might have been. The Dec. 19, 1999, issue discussed severe pollution in Winter Quarters Bay, right next to McMurdo Station. And the Oct. 29, 2000, issue included a picture of a sea urchin using a tampon as camouflage on the sea floor. Both of those stories were about NSF-funded scientific research into Antarctic pollution.
Other stories, though, never see the light of day. Landis secured a series of interviews with people who had wintered at the South Pole with Dr. Jerri Nielsen, the doctor who discovered she had breast cancer while at the Pole in 1999.
“I probably had better access than anybody to get the details of the story,” Landis said. “When the NSF found out about this, it was very quickly ended.”
“I actually ended it when it became apparent that any final version would be so heavily edited for the purpose of removing things that I knew it wouldn’t be satisfying,” Landis said.
January 2002: Artur Chilingarov, a deputy chairman of the Russian Duma and a towering figure in Russian Antarctic research, was stranded at the South Pole because of mechanical problems with his aircraft. A Sun staffer was at the Pole at the time, but the paper carried less than a paragraph about the visit, making no mention of Chilingarov’s name or position.
November 1999: An LC-130H “Hercules” aircraft had to take a 12-hour trip in attempt to land at several runways due to whiteout conditions. The story ran, but with some restrictions. “That story was a perfect example of how censorship can be acceptable,” Landis said. All the facts in the story were accurate, but “I stayed away from certain things that might upset people about the flight,” Landis said, meaning not only officials in the program but employees who needed to get around the continent. “You don’t want everybody flying on a Herc for the rest of the season to be afraid,” he said.
November 1998: An Air National Guard plane went into a crevasse, with no injuries and only minor damage to the plane. “I wanted to get that story out right away, and I wasn’t allowed to,” Colhoun said. He had a photo of the plane in the crevasse the day the accident occurred, but “they wouldn’t let me use it,” Colhoun said, offering a possible explanation: The Air National Guard had just begun taking over Antarctic flying from the Navy, which had flown for the program since the 1950s. Air Guard officials had been reluctant to take Navy advice before the accident, and could have been embarrassed by the story.
Not only the big stories were cut, though. A short piece about a cave of boulders built for McMurdo’s rock-climbing community’s use was struck from the paper in October 2000. No reason was given for the large X on the proof page. Though that was more the exception than the rule, it and the other restrictions provide a look at what governmental control over media can do.
“It’s not an independent publication,” said Valerie Carroll, the Sun’s publisher and communications manager at Raytheon Polar Services, NSF’s Antarctic contractor. “We’re being paid by a client to put out a newsletter-slash-newspaper,” Carroll said.
NSF may have its own publicity plans, she said, and “it wouldn’t look good for us to scoop them,” Carroll said, adding that there are “other perspectives we’re not aware of and don’t need to be.”
Colhoun and Landis offer kudos, though, for some openness on the part of the NSF. “For their culture, for them to allow even what we did was pretty remarkable,” Landis said. “In general, you weren’t censored.”
“The NSF feels like they let you have 70 percent freedom,” Colhoun said. He wanted to show a complete picture of what was going on in Antarctica — good and bad. “That agenda was not the one that the NSF wanted for that product,” Colhoun said. “I was owned by the NSF. They were the editorial power.”
Guthridge agrees. All NSF publications must go through an official approval process, he said. The Sun’s process is streamlined because of the distance and time difference between McMurdo and Washington, as well as the volume of material published in the Sun each week.
“We’re using public dollars here to put out something, and so we’re responsible to the larger public,” Guthridge said. For him, that means keeping some things quiet.
Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, said it is reasonable to expect that the government would spend money on a publication to serve its purposes. But, he said, they run the risk of improving short-term image at the expense of long-term credibility.
“The more frank and open the government is in publications of that kind, the more valuable they are,” Jones said. “The long-term best interests are in being open and honest.”
All parties agree that the Sun is not in the role of watchdog of the U.S. Antarctic Program, though there isn’t any other organization that is or could be. Logistics are the main problem. “Journalists can’t just hop on a plane and go talk to who they want to,” Carroll said.
The Sun staff is based at McMurdo and has limited access to field camps and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, giving them better access to Antarctic information than any other U.S. journalists.
“It’s not meant to be what (a newspaper) is in the world,” Landis said. “NSF gets to control what facts become public.”
Other journalists do come to the continent, after applying to NSF and having their plans approved. Some of these have included staff members from U.S. News & World Report, the Baltimore Sun, and National Geographic.
When journalists do come from outside organizations, Guthridge said, “They do what they want,” Guthridge said.
The time they are allotted, Colhoun said, is often too short for real reporting. Weather delays, survival training, and other commitments can mean there is little time to get into issues of waste or mismanagement on the ice, he said. “The only kind of reports that can come back are happy reports,” Colhoun said.
Guthridge said all signatory nations to the Antarctic Treaty are required to publish annual plans and reports on their activities. Countries can verify that information by appointing observers who have free access to the stations and equipment of other nations. The public, though, has little access to the U.S. Antarctic Program, only experiencing life and work at research stations when in the employ of government organizations or their contractors.
“It’s their show, they make the rules,” Landis said, adding that being more open would help. “More press freedom would create better dialogue in the Antarctic community,” Landis said.