Reasonable Doubt

America’s Enduring Obsession With UFOs

How the media keeps extraterrestrial infatuation top of mind

Illustration: Darren Oorloff

NNear the end of 2018, a startling claim made international headlines: “Pilots report seeing ‘very fast’ UFO above Ireland,” CNN reported. “If it wasn’t aliens, what was it?” The Washington Post asked.

News of the unidentified flying object flew across the globe like a meteor, which is what the mysterious entity most likely was, according to aviation and astronomy experts. As is often the case, that tidbit was buried at the bottom of most news stories.

UFO sightings are reported to local authorities or volunteer UFO groups with varying degrees of fanfare. A recent visit to the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) website features sightings logged from Canada to Mississippi. A pilot in Alabama reported seeing an “oddly shaped circular object” in 2017. A camper in Idaho spotted a “massive triangular craft” last summer.

People who claim to see UFOs are typically adamant about what they witnessed, though most space experts are unconvinced. “No serious astronomer gives any credence to any of these stories,” astrophysicist Martin Rees notably said in 2012. He’s right. UFO reports can be attributed to commercial or military jets, weather balloons, an odd cloud formation, a comet, or Venus (under certain atmospheric conditions, the planet can appear as a fast-moving, bright halo). Some intrepid photographers have even confused insects flying around a camera lens for alien aircrafts.

The truth is, the number of reported UFO sightings have actually “fallen significantly in recent years,” says Peter Davenport, director of the Seattle-based National UFO Reporting Center, whose organization keeps a monthly tally. Sightings have fluctuated for decades, peaking in 2014 with 8,619 documented reports of UFOs. In 2018, 3,236 sightings were recorded.

America’s fascination with UFOs, however, isn’t going anywhere, much to the chagrin of scientists who thought we’d left our collective extraterrestrial frenzy behind decades ago. Since the first publicized UFO sighting by a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold in 1947 — he reported spotting “nine bright saucer-like objects” while flying his plane in Washington state — extraterrestrial contact has served as a Hollywood muse and continuous source of media fodder.

Today, Ancient Aliens, a controversial pseudo-documentary series that argues space aliens shaped humanity, is the History Channel’s most popular show. Recently, the network unveiled “Project Blue Book,” a new show based on the U.S. Air Force’s investigation into UFOs during the 1950s and 1960s. Another upcoming TV series, based on “real life” UFO events at a U.S military base in Britain, is being produced by Sony.

Yet given the consensus among scientists that space aliens aren’t visiting Earth, it’s tough to understand how reports of a UFO streaking across Ireland makes news headlines with little skepticism. Until recently, the topic had largely been relegated to the tabloids and fringe outlets.

A major impetus for the resurgent interest in UFOs from news organizations can be traced to a December 2017 front-page article in the New York Times, which revealed that the U.S. government had, in the recent past, spent $22 million on a secretive project run by the Pentagon to research and assess “the threat posed” by UFOs, according to the piece. The Times story set off a flurry of wide-eyed coverage in prestigious mainstream organizations such as NPR, CNN, and every other major broadcast news outlet. The reports suggested that the military is taking UFO sightings seriously, even if scientists are not.

Such prominent attention from the press sends a signal to the public, says Glenn Sparks, a communications professor at Purdue, who studies how beliefs and emotions are influenced by the media. “If UFOs are getting credible news coverage, and the news media are taking it seriously, that is likely to have an impact on how the average person might think about it,” he says. This media coverage, he adds, also fuels an already robust entertainment market for the topic.

Understanding our latest round of extraterrestrial fervor requires an awareness of how UFOs became woven into the fabric of American culture in the first place. While Hollywood certainly has played an influential role, I argue it’s the news media that keeps the specter of extraterrestrials alight in our skies and minds.

AAmerica’s cultural fascination with UFOs is well established. Iconic films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and popular shows such as The X-Files have fed this curiosity. Additionally, television stations — particularly cable networks like the History Channel, Discovery, and National Geographic — have provided “a steady supply of sympathetic documentaries about UFOs and alien contact” for decades, says Penn State historian Greg Eghigian in a 2015 paper. As it happens, research suggests that UFO sightings have periodically spiked after the release of popular sci-fi flicks, such as Independence Day and Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds.

But the role news media has played in amplifying UFO fervor both now and in the past cannot be understated. The birth of the UFO phenomenon in the United States can be traced to the Associated Press’s 1947 dispatch on Arnold’s sighting. In his book, Angels and Aliens: UFOs and the Mythic Imagination, author Keith Thompson recounts what happened next: “Within a matter of hours, Arnold’s story — trumpeted by the evocative phrase ‘flying saucers,’ a creation of anonymous headline writers — became front-page news throughout the nation.”

Hundreds of similar mysterious objects were reported in the following weeks and months across the United States. “Flying Saucers Seen In Most States Now,” read one headline from the San Francisco Chronicle on July 7, 1947.

This rash of UFO sightings occurred at an edgy time in American history: Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was still fresh in the national psyche and the Soviet Union’s nuclear ambitions were beginning to spook Americans. It was in this “fertile milieu in which the phrase ‘flying saucer’ would quickly lodge in the public imagination, where it began to crackle like a low-grade neon sign,” Thompson writes.

Meanwhile, government officials struggled to calm citizens — and make sense of what was happening. In public statements, the Pentagon sought to downplay the sightings, but within some parts of the military, there were real concerns and confusion. At first, the frequency of sightings and similarity of their descriptions led Air Force investigators to wonder: Could some of the disc-like objects be extraterrestrial in origin?

But by 1949, the Pentagon officially dismissed UFOs as a product of hoaxes, misidentification, hallucinations, and mass hysteria. To convey this to the public, military officials worked closely with the Saturday Evening Post on a two-part article that derided the idea of intergalactic ships whirring through the skies. “It is a jittery age we live in,” the magazine concluded, “particularly since our scientists and military spokesmen have started talking about sending rockets to the moon… it is a small wonder that harassed humans, already suffering from atomic psychosis, have started seeing saucers and Martians.”

Instead of putting the matter to rest, as the Pentagon hoped, the article aroused ire and disquiet. Concerned that its public engagement was feeding into the country’s “war nerves,” the Pentagon resolved to go silent on UFO commentary.

Into this vacuum stepped a group of citizen crusaders, rank opportunists, and con artists. One leading voice was retired Marine Corps Major Donald Keyhoe, who in January of 1950 published a widely circulated article in True Magazine titled, “Flying Saucers are Real.” UFO sightings were soon taken up by mainstream media’s most iconic and influential publications. In 1952, Life Magazine published a lengthy article titled, “Have we visitors from outer space?” This was a watershed moment, writes Mark O’Connell in his recent book, The Close Encounters Man. “When Life spoke, the whole country listened,” he writes.

Hollywood, of course, also seized on the craze. In 1949, a Hollywood writer named Frank Scully published several columns in Variety that claimed the government was in possession of crashed saucers and alien corpses. (A few years later his sources were revealed to be hoaxers.) Numerous alien films were released over the next 10 years, including The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invaders from Mars, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and Invasion of the Saucer Men.

By the late 1960s, America’s UFO phenomenon was in full bloom. There were flying saucer cults, UFO-monitoring organizations, and more UFO sightings covered widely in the press. In 1966, five percent of Americans told a Gallup poll they had seen something resembling a UFO. In the same poll, “nearly all Americans — 96 percent — said they had heard or read about flying saucers,” writes Gallup analyst Lydia Saad.

In 1969 — the same year U.S. astronauts went to the moon — the Pentagon announced it was closing up shop on any UFO research. The Air Force had examined more than 10,000 sightings since 1952 as part of a series of investigations called Project Blue Book. There was no threat to national security, the agency concluded, and “no evidence indicating the sightings categorized as ‘unidentified’ are extraterrestrial vehicles.”

If only that were the end of the story.

TToday, a new set of crusading actors are reviving a UFO narrative with all the trappings of America’s first round of extraterrestrial enchantment. On December 16, 2017, Politico, the New York Times, and the Washington Post published near simultaneous stories about an obscure $22 million Pentagon project that officially existed between 2008 and 2012.

All three outlets had essentially the same story: The Pentagon program was created at the behest of former Democratic Senator Harry Reid in 2008 and was run jointly for a time with Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas, whose owner, Robert Bigelow, has long been on the hunt for extraterrestrials and poltergeists.

Politico and the Washington Post treated the Pentagon program as it appeared to be: A pet project of a senator that didn’t amount to much — other than “reams of paperwork” — and did not provide evidence that alien spaceships were buzzing our skies. Both stories had well-placed sources in the intelligence community that were skeptical of the program’s purpose and deliverables. Absent any salacious details, neither story got wider pickup.

The New York Times, however, played up dubious tidbits that the Washington Post or Politico either didn’t find credible or simply didn’t know about — namely that the program had found “metal alloys and other materials… recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena,” that got stored in a Bigelow Aerospace warehouse. There is no indication in the Times story that any of these “materials” were seen firsthand by its reporters.

The Times also had something its competitors apparently didn’t: Grainy footage of two Navy F/A-18 fighter jets in 2004 tracking an apparent unknown object “traveling at high speed and rotating” off the coast of San Diego. The 45-second video and the Times front page article went viral.

But there’s more to the Times story that should’ve given readers pause.

One of the authors of the story was Leslie Kean, a journalist with a long-standing interest in UFOs and the paranormal, who published a book in 2010 titled, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. At the time, activists in the UFO community were coalescing around the goal of obtaining official “disclosure” about extraterrestrial sightings. This entailed finding current military and aviation whistleblowers to come forward and share the secrets they knew about UFOs — or in the case of Kean’s book, tell of the strange flying objects they had seen or learned about in the course of their jobs. In numerous articles in the Huffington Post over the past decade, Kean has discussed her participation in several nonprofit groups involved in UFOs and the “disclosure” movement.

On Oct 10, 2017, Kean published a tantalizing article on the Huffington Post’s contributor platform. (The platform, now closed, allowed people to post their own writing to the site). “Something extraordinary is about to be revealed,” she wrote. “Former high-level officials and scientists with deep black experience who have always remained in the shadows” were preparing to dish “inside knowledge” of UFOs.

Kean described a group of “government insiders” that had come together as part of a new for-profit company called To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science (TTSA). Members included Hal Puthoff, a theoretical physicist and former Scientologist who directed the infamous “psychic spy” program for the CIA and DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) in the 1970s and 1980s, and Chris Mellon, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence during the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations.

Of note, the founding of TTSA was set in motion by Tom DeLonge, a former guitarist for Blink-182 who has long nursed a very public obsession with UFOs. Another key player was former military intelligence officer named Luis Elizondo, who at the launch of TTSA publicly announced that an “aerospace threat identification program” he had recently overseen at the Pentagon had convinced him the UFO “phenomena was indeed real.”

The Times, encouraged by Kean, took a serious look at Elizondo and his claims. Other prominent outlets, it turned out, were doing so, too. Two months later, the Times, Politico, and Washington Post stories hit. But it was the Times piece that reverberated across the media landscape.

ABC News called the Times story and video footage a “bombshell.” MSNBC, in one of its numerous segments on the story, described news of the government’s UFO program as a “remarkable admission by the Pentagon” as a “result of reporting by the New York Times.” Every major television network rolled the video. “You can laugh if you want,” news anchor Bret Baier said on Fox, “but a lot of people are taking this revelation seriously.” Elizondo, who would become a media darling over the months to come, said on CNN: “My personal belief is there is very compelling evidence we may not be alone.”

Amidst the media frenzy, few prominent outlets bothered to look closely at the juicy particulars of the Times piece, or at the UFO video that left many awestruck. Notable exceptions included Scientific American, which was deeply skeptical about those metal chunks being stored in a Bigelow warehouse, and New York magazine, which, in a damning critique by writer Jeff Wise, faulted the Times story for “selective omissions” and for “making portentous assertions out of context.” Wise wrote that such techniques “are great for exciting an audience, but they’re better suited to Ancient Aliens, the aforementioned History Channel series, “than the pages of the New York Times.”

These criticisms hardly registered, though. If anything, the juggernaut grew after Elizondo and TTSA in 2018 rolled out more intriguing videos, obtained from the Pentagon, of supposed UFOs under pursuit by military jets. It launched another news cycle, once again with few skeptical voices in the media.

Meanwhile, TTSA raised over $2 million from investors. The company’s all-stars, particularly Elizondo, continue to generate media coverage. As the Washington Post noted last May in a new story: “UFOs are suddenly a serious story. You can thank the guy from Blink-182 for that.”

Actually, you can thank the news media.

Journalist at intersection of science, culture, and politics.

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