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National geographic: behind America's lens on the world.

National Geographic: Behind America's Lens on the World.

Howard S. Abramson. Crown,$17.95. Abramson, a Washington Post financial editor, discloses in this book a number of little secrets about the Grosvenor family business--the National Geographic Society (NGS)--such as old Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor's penchant for fascism, complete with anti-Semitism; the NGS's genteel Southern racism; the Society's subtle sexism; and some big lies such as the lengths to which NGS went to name Navy Admiral Robert E. Peary as the North Pole's discoverer --all for its own publicity-seeking self-promotion.

The world's largest nonprofitscientific and educational organization, Abramson discovers, is a monolithic mail-order publishing house interested only in its own survival.

The Society is an institutioncreated by well-intentioned people that continues to do well-intentioned work. But its scientific achievements, Abramson says, lie mostly in the publication of its magazine. Hardly a new frontier. Moreover, the commitment to education is self-serving, feigned for the protection of its nonprofit (read tax-exempt) status. Is its mission "for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge' so unique? No. Does NGS devote itself to scientific exploration? Not exactly; less than 1 percent of revenue funded research and exploration in 1983. Is the Society "educational'? Not any more than Rand-McNally or McGraw-Hill. Then does the National Geographic Society deserve to be tax-exempt? Absolutely not.

Tax-exempt since its founding,NGS has the advantage of ambiguous regulation. In Behind America's Lens and IRS official explains: "It is very difficult for us to judge what is "educational' and what isn't.' Not only does NGS not pay a penny of the $670,000 in property taxes its downtown real estate would generate annually, but it benefits from reduced postal rates for nonprofits.

The Society may well lose itsnonprofit status, Abramson states, especially if recent forays into video technology provide more and more of its revenue. "One has to wonder,' he claims, "how the IRS will respond as video products and television shows consume increasing portions of the Society's enormous operating budget and generate more of its income.' Abramson didn't examine this TV sideline closely enough.

In fact, NGS has been workinghard to protect itself. In 1984, it created a new division called Educational Media (EM) for producing filmstrips. While I worked there, EM doubled in size. The division took on computer software development; a videodisc project; an NGS-Apple Computer-Lucasfilm co-production for the classroom; and a collaboration with the American Association of Geographers and school districts around the country.

The IRS threat to revoke theSociety's tax-exempt status if it did not undeniably demonstrate its educational purpose has already been seen and answered by Grosvenor and the rest of the top Grosvenor and the rest of the top NGS brass.
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Author:Simonelli, Tony
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1987
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