Who reached the North Pole first?

That question is still with us, although the National Geographic thought it was answered back in 1909 with the expedition by Robert E. Peary. But a CBS movie about Arctic explorers Peary and Frederick Albert Cook broadcast a year ago left the impression that Cook was the first to reach the North Pole. The film starred an angelic Richard Chamberlain as Cook, up against a ruthless Rod Steiger as Peary; it ignored evidence that Cook never got to the Pole at all, and was involved in at least one fraudulent expedition before he claimed to have reached the Pole.

Peary, who was backed by the Geographic, is generally credited with being first. "It's easier to make a popular film with a new twist on history," says Geographic president Gilbert M. Grosvenor, "than one showing what is really known."

The film is resented at the Geographic, which mounted a public relations campaign to discredit the film in the weeks before it was shown on CBS. Peary was never considered a paragon of charm, but his integrity isn't questioned. As one Geographic editor puts it, "Cook was a liar and a gentleman. Peary was neither."

Ironically, the film was sponsored by ITT, which rents the fifth floor of the new Geographic building.

Whether or not Peary actually reached absolute North has never been proved, and the persistence of doubt rankles. There are plans to call in an independent scholar to evaluate the evidence and plans to print Peary's diaries, which have never been published, if his heirs will release them.