OP-ED: Sullivan corrects the record on News-Miner’s account of flag incident

While I don’t always agree with the News-Miner’ editorials, I have long respected its professional work, especially getting the facts right. But the recent editorial, “The media rush that sparked a flag frenzy and got it all wrong,” misses the mark in so many ways, I felt compelled to respond personally.

But before recounting the serious problems with this editorial, let me start with what happened and share an area of agreement.

My office received a phone call from a constituent who was working on a construction project in Denali National Park. He told my staff that he had been directed to remove a 3x5 flag affixed to his truck. In working the case, my office learned that the National Park Service (NPS) caused the incident to happen as a result of a park-visitor complaint.

Subsequently, I wrote to the Director of the U.S. Park Service requesting an investigation. I made this letter public, as I do with most letters I write or co-sign to federal officials on important policy issues.

I was in direct communication on May 25 and 26 with the park service director. He surmised that the “unfortunate issue” may have resulted from the contractor’s contract with a federal agency. He committed to respond in detail to the questions in my letter. I also strongly encouraged him to ensure that the convoy of Alaskans coming to the park with flags in protest be allowed to proceed without incident.

After these communications, I was somewhat surprised when the NPS put out a statement saying reports that NPS was involved in the incident were “false.” The NPS said, “At no time did an NPS official seek to ban or limit the flag from the project site or associated vehicles.” These statements turned out to be false.

Five days later, the NPS released another statement admitting that the NPS was involved — that an NPS official notified the Federal Highway Administration about a flag complaint and the NPS official asked if there was an “appropriate way to request the flag be detached from a contractor’s vehicle to limit wildlife and visitor impacts.”

Those are the facts.

Now, the area of agreement: Nobody should be subjected to hateful attacks and certainly not physically threatened. My office put out a statement “Senator Sullivan condemns any and all personal attacks on public officials, including Park Service employees.” The editorial failed to note that I never once mentioned the Denali Park superintendent’s name or title in my letter to the NPS director or in statements.

Where I vehemently disagree with the editorial is the claim that I was spreading “misinformation” in my letter to the NPS director. Alaskans should feel free to read the letter here. Nothing in my letter was inaccurate. In fact, the “misinformation” came from the NPS when they initially claimed they had nothing to do with the removal of the flag and five days later admitted that they did.

Remarkably, the editorial fails to mention these critical facts.

All of this leads to a larger issue, which the News-Miner also missed in yielding to an easy narrative that blames conservative media while not holding the NPS responsible for its actions. This story is not just about patriotism and the American flag. It runs deeper, with a more complicated narrative—one that hits at the heart of our state’s fraught relationship with federal agencies.

For decades, the NPS and other federal agencies have ignored or pushed the boundaries of the unique laws governing federal lands in Alaska. One of the most infamous cases is when an Alaskan named John Sturgeon was cited by NPS Rangers for using a hovercraft to go moose hunting in an area where the NPS incorrectly said it was prohibited. Sturgeon fought the NPS all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—twice—where they unanimously agreed that the NPS was violating federal law.

Therefore, it touched a raw nerve when, on the eve of Memorial Day, Alaskans heard about the NPS causing a patriotic Alaskan to remove his American flag from his truck in a national park. Thousands of Alaskans were outraged, many of whom reached out to me and my office to voice their concern and ask for assistance.

The editorial referred to me as a “senator who likes to bang the outrage drum.” Actually, I’m a senator who likes to fight for my state’s and constituents’ rights, given they are frequently under attack.

Finally, the editorial castigates other media outlets for not following “Journalism 101.” The real irony here is that the News-Miner’s editorial writers never bothered to reach out to my office and check the facts. Instead, they looked the other way about the NPS’s false statements, and kept Alaskans in the dark about all of it. Talk about Journalism 101!

I hope the News-Miner returns to its tradition of due diligence in future editorials.

By:  Sen. Dan Sullivan
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner