20 Of The Biggest Scandals To Have Hit National Geographic

National Geographic magazine has been in continuous publication since 1888 – which is a mind-boggling 132 years. During that time it’s expanded to include a television channel, website, events and many other publications. And it’s no surprise that a host of scandals have been faced by the brand and certain people who represent it over the years. Here are 20 of the biggest controversies to ever hit National Geographic.

20. The cover featured a ’shopped image of the Giza pyramids

The Pyramids of Giza have stood strong for thousands of years. But in 1982 they mysteriously moved – at least according to National Geographic’s February cover. Yes, eagle-eyed readers quickly spotted that the offending image depicted the towering relics of Egyptian history suspiciously near to each other. Had these iconic monuments genuinely shifted in the sands?

Not quite: to fit the photographer’s landscape image onto its portrait-shaped cover, the publication’s editors had digitally moved the structures. Wilbur E. Garrett, who oversaw the magazine at the time, defended the move as a simple perspective shift. But critics derided it, claiming it was an example of the crumbling integrity of photography in the digital age. At least National Geographic has since owned its mistake, though.

19. It awarded a prize to a fake image

National Geographic’s photography community, collectively branded as “Your Shot,” is generally held in high regard by budding snappers. That’s partly because the magazine’s editors choose the best images to run in print and online. But that worthy accolade was temporarily tarnished in February 2010 after the staff ran a fabricated image.

William Lascelles’ photo depicted a happy pooch sitting in suburbia, while a sextet of fighter jets raced overhead in formation. But their unusually close alignment raised suspicions among readers. And before long, Lascelles admitted to fabricating the picture. Apparently, he’d originally claimed it was simply a “lucky shot” and then eventually owned up.


18. Dr. Pol was charged with negligence

National Geographic may tout him as “America’s favorite vet,” but Dr. Jan Pol probably isn’t particularly favored by animals. That’s because the host of The Incredible Dr. Pol has been disciplined at least twice during the reality show’s nine-year run. And both of those instances involved alleged negligence from Pol towards his patients.

In 2015, for example, the Michigan Board of Veterinary Medicine ruled Pol incompetent and negligent for not properly sterilizing before surgery on a Boston Terrier. That decision was eventually overturned by an appeals court, but controversy has continued to plague the show in the years since. And some vets, such as Dr. Debora Lichtenberg when writing on the Petful.com website, have even called Pol out as “incompetent” and “substandard.”


17. Diggers launched without actual archaeologists

Digging up American soil in search of lost relics might have made for captivating television, but it didn’t sit well with professional archaeologists. Yes, National Geographic Channel’s Diggers was met with some scathing criticism when it launched in 2012. And this apparently had something to do with its hosts – a pair of amateur metal-detector enthusiasts who seemingly eschewed due diligence.

The Society for American Archaeology even called out the show for glorifying “the looting and destruction of archaeological sites,” according to the Huffington Post. That led to some drastic alterations when Diggers returned in 2015. The show now featured involvement from trained archaeologists, explicit statements that the participants had acquired landowners’ consent prior to digging and a greater focus on items’ historical relevance (rather than their commercial value).


16. A gun enthusiast was cut from Doomsday Preppers

Doomsday Preppers saw the National Geographic Channel focus on people throughout the U.S. who believe our civilization’s demise is imminent. Given the show’s nature, then, it’s probably to be expected that firearms zealots will pop up from time to time. But in 2013 one such fanatic stoked considerable controversy for the show, which led to his episode being pulled.

According to the campaign organization Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, James Yeager once posted a YouTube video in which he discussed murdering people who tried to limit his Second Amendment rights. The group subsequently garnered support from people across the nation who wanted to prevent his Doomsday Preppers episode from being aired. And the network willingly obliged, agreeing that Yeager’s views didn’t gel with its own principles.


15. A religious colony accused it of exploitation

In 2012 the National Geographic Channel aired a documentary titled American Colony: Meet The Hutterites. But controversy soon flared when the colony accused the show’s producers of mischaracterizing their community and demonizing its members. The doc portrayed residents in the rural Protestant settlement in Montana – where German is the accepted language – cussing, consuming alcohol and using firearms, despite such actions being forbidden by the community’s creed.

But David Lyle, National Geographic Channel’s chief executive, stood by the show. He claimed the documentary was both balanced and authentic – a conclusion later backed by some of the Hutterites themselves. One of the series’ main protagonists even told The Washington Post, “The notion that we were taken advantage of, as if we were innocent children, is nonsense.”


14. It was reportedly investigated for allegedly bribing an Egyptian official

The 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act explicitly forbids American organizations from giving kickbacks to officials from overseas. That’s worth knowing when considering the curious case of Dr. Zahi Hawass, the former Egyptian bureaucrat at the center of a National Geographic scandal in 2013. For a time, Hawass was the man in charge of Egypt’s many extraordinary historical sites and artifacts. And this was why the publication allegedly spent years paying him enormous bribes.

According to a 2013 report by The Independent, Hawass allegedly accepted payments from National Geographic of up to $200,000 per year. In exchange, he reportedly allowed the magazine to freely cover the country’s many historical treasures, such as the pyramids. Both parties denied the claims, though, and the U.S. Justice Department refused to affirm that it was looking into the matter.


13. A Wicked Tuna star was charged with fraud

If you’re claiming disability benefits, it’s probably not a good idea to go on television and perform manual labor. But that’s exactly what Paul Hebert did by appearing on the National Geographic Channel’s Wicked Tuna from 2010 to 2013. The reality show depicts fishermen attempting to catch enormous – and very valuable – bluefin tuna.

According to Hebert’s attorney, the fisherman applied for the aid prior to landing his role in the series. But that didn’t stop him from being indicted on charges of federal fraud in 2015. Hebert ultimately had to pay out more than $50,000 and was given a four-year suspended sentence.


12. A 2006 article outraged Bulgarian archaeologists

In November 2006 National Geographic magazine ran a piece headlined “Bulgaria’s Gold Rush.” The story touched on the country’s ancient Thracian history and the artifacts buried there, claiming, “For looters, Bulgaria is El Dorado.” You might assume that such an article would be a massive boon for the nation’s tourism industry. But its top archaeologists came together to openly condemn the feature.

Professor Nikolay Ovcharov claimed at the time that the piece was “meant to drive away, rather than attract foreigners.” His fellow experts also called out its ignorance of the country’s Thracian history, finding fault with the story’s tone as well. And Georgi Kitov – described by local news agency Novinite as the “Indiana Jones of Bulgaria” – was reportedly deeply upset by the magazine’s depiction of him.


11. Steve McCurry was caught up in a Photoshop scandal

Veteran fans of National Geographic should recognize Steve McCurry’s name. After all, he’s one of the organization’s most prolific and revered photographers. His reputation took a beating in 2016, though, when fellow snapper Paolo Viglione pointed out that one of McCurry’s prints had been Photoshopped.

The image depicts a scene in Cuba, and it’s pretty clear that it’s been digitally altered. And not in a sophisticated manner, either. This discovery then prompted curious internet users to trawl McCurry’s portfolio for other instances of Photoshop trickery – with no small amount of success. For his part, while talking to photography website PetaPixel the esteemed visual journalist claimed that a member of his team had made the alteration without his supervision – but he also stated that the buck stopped with him ultimately.


10. Two parents were accused of cheating in the National Geographic Bee

Perhaps one of the National Geographic pantheon’s lesser-known events is its annual GeoBee. For more than three decades, the competition has tested the geography skills of school-kids across the United States. But the historic contest was rocked in 2016 after a Chicago family was accused of cheating, which led to an expensive and drawn-out legal battle with the school board.

The school district, which has never changed its stance, alleged that mom Komal Julka registered as a home-school tutor to buy the bee questions in advance. The family subsequently sued the district for millions of dollars, claiming they’d acquired the material unintentionally. But a federal jury ruled in favor of the school in 2019, and the Julkas wound up with nothing.


9. It falsely identified a fossil as the “missing link”

During the fall of 1999 National Geographic magazine went beyond the printed page to call a real-life media conference. The reason? It had apparently discovered the “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds in a fossil it called “Archaeoraptor.” The next edition of the magazine proudly proclaimed the momentous find – but a storm was brewing.

The fossil’s identification hadn’t yet been peer reviewed by scientists. So National Geographic quickly came under fire for its hasty announcement, especially as prominent journals had already dismissed the finding. The magazine launched its own review, which led to an admission in the October 2000 issue that the fossil was indeed a fake. Or, in the magazine’s own words, a “composite.”


8. An athlete requested a retraction of an article

In January 2020 Colin O’Brady published his memoir, The Impossible First, which details his “solo, unsupported, unaided crossing of Antarctica.” But the following month, National Geographic magazine responded by declaring that details in his account “do not withstand scrutiny.” So, what was it about the endurance athlete’s story that didn’t seem to hold up?

For one, the “off the map” location O’Brady claims to have trekked was apparently well-trodden by visitors. Other prominent explorers have also accused the adventurer of exaggerating his achievements. But O’Brady stood by his book, publishing a 16-page rebuttal of National Geographic’s article and requesting that the piece was withdrawn. At the time of writing, though, the magazine’s story is still viewable on its website.


7. There’s a grim story behind one of its most iconic images

Steve McCurry’s portrait photo of an anonymous “Afghan girl” earned him worldwide acclaim in 1984. But the story behind this iconic image is one of great controversy. At the time, the picture’s subject Sharbat Gula was aged just ten and was living in a Pakistani refugee encampment. McCurry was apparently captivated by the girl’s beautiful eyes and wanted to photograph her. Yet to do so, he acted in a way that seems inappropriate.

That’s because Gula’s culture dictated that she was forbidden from: exposing her face; being in the same room as a male she wasn’t related to; having her picture taken; and having that image published. McCurry and National Geographic seemingly disregarded these customs when they published Gula’s face on the cover of a summer 1985 issue. But the image did at least reportedly help to bring in more than $1 million for a charity established to help girls such as Gula.


6. Neil deGrasse Tyson was accused of sexual misconduct

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson had a lot on his plate in 2018. Alongside working on a second series of the rebooted Cosmos series for National Geographic and Fox, the astrophysicist was also contending with a series of sexual assault allegations. The first of those had come a year prior from Tchiya Amet, a musician who stated that she’d been raped by Tyson in grad school.

That initial allegation was then compounded by two more, from Tyson’s ex-PA Ashley Watson and a professor named Dr. Katelyn N. Allers. Both claimed he’d made inappropriate advances. Tyson refuted the accusations, while Fox, National Geographic and the American Museum of Natural History all began reviews of the claims. The museum’s enquiry ended in July 2019, with Tyson staying in his post as head of the Hayden Planetarium.


5. Cesar Millan was investigated for animal cruelty

Cesar Millan is probably best known for his acclaimed TV series Dog Whisperer. But it was his Nat Geo Wild show Cesar 911 that brought major controversy to his door. That’s because a 2016 episode featured a pig being used to train a French Bulldog mix, which had apparently already caused the deaths of a couple of other pet hogs. The clip then ended with the pooch seemingly sinking its teeth into the pig’s head.

The network swiftly received a raft of complaints from horrified viewers. But Nat Geo Wild failed to apologize, instead claiming that the procedure had occurred in a “safe and controlled environment,” according to the BBC. LA County Animal Control officials launched an investigation anyway and eventually concluded that there was no serious wrongdoing on Millan’s part.


4. Patrick Witty was accused of sexual misconduct

Patrick Witty was National Geographic’s deputy director of photography when the publication launched an investigation into his conduct during the fall of 2017. A number of women working at the magazine had accused him of acting in a sexually aggressive manner towards staff and other associates. Witty had also already found himself included in a list of men suspected of such misconduct that had been circulated within the industry.

By December, Witty had left the magazine, although National Geographic failed to tell staff why. It subsequently issued a statement to Vox, saying that the allegations against Witty had been looked into comprehensively. Witty then released his own statement, through his legal representative, that refuted any sexually aggressive conduct but also apologized to any women whom his past actions had caused distress.


3. It came under fire for linking a starving polar bear to climate change

In the winter of 2017 a National Geographic video received lots of coverage. The distressing clip showed an almost skeletal polar bear, close to death, on Canada’s Baffin Island. The outlet claimed that the dying bear was the stark reality of climate change. But in the summer of 2018 an apology was issued prompted by a backlash from the public.

National Geographic went too far in drawing a definitive connection between climate change and a particular starving polar bear,” the magazine stated. “While science has established that there is a strong connection between melting sea ice and polar bears dying off, there is no way to know for certain why this bear was on the verge of death.” Photographer Cristina Mittermeier added, “Perhaps we made a mistake not telling the full story – that we were looking for a picture that foretold the future.”


2. It’s faced criticism for selling branded genetic testing kits

In spring 2018 National Geographic published its “Race Issue,” which was to begin the magazine’s year-long focus on topics relating to diversity and race. So far, so noble. But the company then courted controversy by releasing a branded genetic testing kit named “Geno 2.0” that purported to reveal the racial mix of one’s ancestry.

The Undark website pointed out that, despite the magazine claiming that “there’s no biological basis for race,” its testing kit still gave out results that broke people’s ancestry down by racial divisions. Undark added that “the coupling of a journalistic exploration of the concept of race with the heavy-handed peddling of branded genetic testing kits does seem, in the most charitable light, somewhat odd. And, perhaps less charitably, downright cynical.”


1. Its own editor called its coverage “racist”

Editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg’s condemnation of her own publication’s historical racism pleased many critics of the magazine. She revealed that University of Virginia Professor John Edwin Mason had been enlisted to examine the content – and that what he found was shocking. Goldberg wrote, “Until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers.”

“Meanwhile, it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages – every type of cliché,” Goldberg continued. “Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.” She concluded by writing, “Let’s confront today’s shameful use of racism as a political strategy and prove we are better than this.”