Hey, Klaatu! Call Peter!: The State of Fluff, part 1

by: Eileen Meehan / Louisiana State University

When Frank Rich nails media wastrels, they stay nailed. In his recent meditation on the life of Hunter S. Thompson and journalistic venality in the 1970s and now, Rich noted:

“What’s missing from News is the news. On ABC, Peter Jennings devotes two hours of prime time playing peek-a-boo with U.F.O. fanatics, a whorish stunt crafted to deliver ratings, not information.”[1]

Rich then savages Brian Williams’ relentless self-promotion and mainstream journalism’s current enthusiasm for Newslessness. Using Thompson’s work, Rich contextualizes this phenomenon in terms of the co-dependency of Washington reporters and politicians, which fosters an unwillingness to investigate political scandals from Watergate to ‘Gannongate.’[2] With Rich having nailed Newslessness, I thought I’d lost my angle on the two hour special Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs — Seeing Is Believing (24 February 2005; PJ Productions and Springs Media). Then I realized that Seeing deserved consideration on its own terms as a piece of fluff.

Given Jennings’ status as a veteran journalist and anchor for ABC World News Tonight, I expected Seeing to present serious fluff: a reasonably accurate and revelatory account of some aspect of UFOs. This expectation was reinforced by Jennings’ statement on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (repeated in promotional interviews and appearances) that the project took a year to complete, suggesting that Seeing would surpass the quickie-UFO shows so common on FOX and cable.

Of course, Jennings is not solely responsible. From ‘Rathergate,’ we understand that much of Seeing‘s content depended on executive producers Mark Obenhaus and Tom Yellin and staff. Further, February is a sweeps month for Nielsen ratings — a time when networks commonly run sensational programs. Within these contexts, Seeing‘s script and Jennings performance were low-key and sympathetic towards individuals reporting anomalous experiences. Besides experiences, the show featured professional believers, professional skeptics, scientists, computer animations, and videotape. The usual mix but with gravitas.

That said, Seeing failed to meet my criteria for good fluff. Based on my viewing of the broadcast and the transcript available via Lexis-Nexis,[3] the program is divided into three parts: people who see UFOs, the reported UFO crash at Roswell, and abductees. I’ll start by summarizing the section on sightings and then delve into each of these areas separately in order to argue that Seeing doesn’t qualify as good fluff. This is the argument’s first installment.

Since businessman Kenneth Arnold saw the first flying saucers over Washintgon’s Cascade Mountains in 1947, solid citizens and ‘first responders’ have seen things in the sky which some believe to be extraterrestrial craft. Nowadays, the government doesn’t investigate these reports. President Truman instructed the CIA to determine how the Air Force should handle UFO reports; the CIA convened a panel of scientists (called the Robertson panel after its chairman), which decided that the Air Force should downplay and debunk any sightings. The Air Force created a PR unit (Project Bluebook) and hired one civilian scientist, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, to do that. Eventually, Hynek came to believe that UFOs were extraterrestrial, resigned as a debunker, and launched the Center for UFO Studies. Given the low reliability of eye-witness testimony, other scientists were loathe to join him. Contemporary scientists — even those at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — agree.

This version of UFO history fits well into Seeing‘s format of alternating positions: first the people who saw and believe, then the people who haven’t and don’t, next more people who did and do, etc. The resulting history of UFO sightings is peopled with solid civilians, honest police officers, and stalwart military men seeing UFOs that the government first debunks and then ignores. The validity of their sightings is reinforced by Hynek’s resignation. This steady line of level-headed observers across the generations lends credibility to the sightings and to the notion of UFOs as extraterrestrial. That, however, ignores a good chunk of UFOlogy’s early history.

Early UFOlogy was not simply a matter of individual people being in the right place at the right time, seeing the right light, and trying to report a UFO. Early on, sighters and believers coalesced into interpretive communities. Some communities fit Seeing‘s solid citizen mold. Based in such a community was the National Investigative Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), founded by retired Marine Major Donald Keyhoe, which had a national office, board, and dues-paying members. NICAP argued that UFOs were physical craft of extraterrestrial origin — dubbed the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ position — and lobbied for a full-blown governmental investigation. NICAP fits Seeing‘s mold but is referenced indirectly in a brief image of one of Keyhoe’s books.

By erasing NICAP, Seeing erased that organization’s informational campaign which included press releases, books, speeches, appearances on radio and television, etc., by Keyhoe and others. That campaign earned NICAP coverage in mainstream media including Life magazine and CBS Reports. NICAP’s discourse was echoed in films like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which Seeing mentions. Thus NICAP’s campaign became a priming discourse: it prepared people to interpet unidentified flying objects as alien spacecraft.

NICAP represented only one community. Others existed in UFOlogy in the 1950s-60s, including one that NICAP abhorred: the contactees. These folks maintained telepathic communication with Nordic-looking aliens, went for rides aboard UFOs, and returned with philosophical messages from the ‘Space Brothers.’[4] Among the contactees were George Adamski, George Van Tassel, and Orfeo Angelucci.[5]

Adamski claimed to have visited Mars, Venus, and Saturn; photographed UFOs in the Mojave Desert; and took plaster casts of footprints left by his initial contact, Orthon from Venus. Van Tassel was building a Venusian-style rejuvenation/time machine and hosted the annual Spacecraft Convention (1954-1977) at Giant Rock. The event attracted thousands of people as well as the occasional journalist or camera crew from a ‘reality’ television program.[6] For academics, the most interesting contactee may be Orfeo Angelucci, on whom Carl Jung spent an appendix in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (1958). Similarly well traveled, Angelucci was more self-effacing than Adamski or Van Tassel. These contactees and others like them claimed to communicate with a steady stream of extraterrestrials.

Contactees provided a second discourse for UFO-media and mainstream media, though the latter generally ran these materials with a smirk. To the degree that contactee discourse reiterated nuts-and-bolts discourse by identifiying UFOs as alien spacecraft, the two primed sighters to see the same thing.

None of this is covered in Seeing. The simplification of UFO history creates an impression that people perceived and interpreted independently — without cultural frames. Seeing erases the priming discourses, thereby decontextualizing the phenomena, the sighters, and their interpretations. Also erased are the contactees — the historical progenitors of the abductees — whose flamboyant presence would undercut the implicit claim that all witnesses were solid citizens.

Seeing‘s first section fails as good fluff because it oversimplifies. It ignores the delicious contradictions that put the ex-Marine Keyhoe and the scamp Adamski in the same cultural territory. By failing to take the contactees seriously, Seeing reproduces NICAP’s judgment about whose sightings count and whose don’t. The resulting history of UFOlogy is not reasonably accurate. Because Seeing does not engage the conflict between nuts-and-boltsers and contactees, it provides no insight into that conflict and no context for subsequent developments. Further, oversimplification sets up Seeing‘s next problem: confusing what happened in Roswell with the Roswell Incident. More about that next time.

Notes:
Rich, Frank. (6 March 2005). “Gonzo Gone, Rather Going, Watergate Still Here,” New York Times, Arts & Leisure, section 2, page 1.
This contrasts with the overwhelming coverage of pseudo-crises like the Clinton Administration’s ‘Travelgate’ and ‘Monicagate.’
Show: Special Report (08 PM ET) – ABC, ABC News Transcripts, American Broadcasting Companies, 2005.
Although Space Sisters appeared in contactee stories, the community generally referred to the aliens as Space Brothers.
Full disclosure: Orfeo Angelucci’s nephew, Dominic Angelucci, and my husband, Alfred Babbitt, were boyhood friends. Dominic remains our friend and has no interest in UFOs.
The reality show You Asked for It (1950-1959) ran a segment on the convention in response to a letter from a viewer.

Links:
Frank Rich’s article (requires signing up for NY Times website)
ABC’s official page for Seeing
NICAP homepage

Please feel free to comment.

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13 comments

  • The cynics among us have perhaps long maligned the inability of network news divisions to provide balanced, thorough accounts of current events and news happenings. Of course it could be argued that that is not the point of network news broadcasts anyway. Time could be argued as a limiting factor as concerns network news, but then again, we all know how often cable news glosses over important details, and those channels have 24 hours.

    I’ve largely given up on television news as a source of information, but I can’t shake the fact that hour-long news specials have always seemed to me as shows where single topics can be explored in glorious detail, spaces where a real knowledge on the topic can be displayed for once. I’m rethinking this after reading Meehan’s examination of _Seeing_. If ABC can’t get UFOs right, why should I expect them to get anything else right? The cynic in me says hour-long specials just means more time for ads, not for truth. And back to the Internet I go.

    Finally, I think this article speaks to a larger question of choices. News producers and executives obviously make choices about not only what stories get covered, but also which angles of a story get explored and which don’t. This selectivity certainly extends to other infotainment series, and it’s something I’ll be keeping in mind the next time I troll the “H”istory channels for some good fluff.

  • Journalism is dead

    Unfortunately, we can’t simply accept the Peter Jennings special as entertaining fluff. It is indicative of a much larger problem, one in which a fake news program such as The Daily Show has much more credibility than “legitimate” broadcast journalists. The fact that ABC News devoted a year of its time to crackpot conspiracy theorists is absolutely shameful. How much airtime or research did they devote to that of fake White House press corp member Jeff Gannon? Considerably less, it seems, even though in this “age of terror”, his deception of the government was a shining example of the massive failure of intelligence in this country. Until “legitimate” journalists start reporting legitimate news, I’ll stick with the fake journalists.

  • Jessica Ehimika

    News has become entertainment

    It is such a shame that the news is more concerned about getting better ratings than delivering acurate news information. It has just become another source for entertainment. Most of the time, the news segements only talk about celebrities or just false stories like “…Seeing is Believing.” At my home town, one of the news stations reported as a story that Britney and Justin finally broke up, which is ridiculous.

    Another reason why these news stories often lack substance is because the producers choose whether or not to put particular news segements on air, and for how long each story will receive. Usually, the stories that are chosen are those that generally reflect or affect the majority of the population. I was shocked, not because there was another recent school shooting, but for the fact that I watch the news and did not hear of this story until three days after it happened. The story was dismissed because it was not the typical profile for kids who commit such crimes. The important thing should be that news is reported to inform us about what is going on; not to entertain or engage us into producing more ratings.

  • Newsworthiness or Newsworthlessness

    In an interesting approach to evaluating one-hour news specials, this article makes remarkably clear how low the bar has fallen for network news shows. And while the author directs most of her attention towards the omissions made by ABC News, and to great effect I would argue (as they clearly left out major features of the UFO story), I feel as though there is something larger at stake here, mentioned in the comment by Joanna Slimmer.

    Implied by this article is the idea that the network news shows go through a large system of selectivity, not only when choosing which topics to cover, but which features of these topics to emphasize or even broadcast at all. While the reader definitely gets a good sense for this in the above article, a more direct commentary on this concept could make this an even more effective piece.

    This piece does excellently illustrate the major problems with television news programs. At a time when so many important events are occurring across the globe, why does ABC have to sink to the level of UFO sightseeing features when they could be spending the time and money to create a penetrating piece on, say, the state of the American prison system, or tumultuous situations on the Indian border, or the influence of fluctuating opium poppy production in Afghanistan. To me, it seems that network news has no interest in actually informing its viewers, merely providing an audience for advertisements, indoctrinating its viewers with scare tactics, and promoting social agendas. It seems high time for something new to happen in news programming, or else this continual downslide will only intensify.

  • My 2¢

    I truly refuse to believe that any amount of real time and effort goes into choosing topics that would really be giving the public any kind of insight that they might not have already been privy to. However, I think the greatest failure of cable news is the fact that this system of ‘Newslessness’, as it’s been referred to in this article, has really become the standard for which the American public gauges the validity and noteworthiness of an issue. I’m not sure who to pin this one on; is it the viewer’s or the networks’ fault? I’ll be the first to admit, I was a Hard Copy fan… I had a strange obsession with A Current Affair (the original) and I still run home to watch Unsolved Mysteries. That said, there is a certain level of responsibility that one should generally expect from a news program that fashions itself as a formidable portrayer of goings-on in the world. In the past 15 years alone the American public has allowed itself to fall prey to a commercially driven tabloid ridden bastardization of worldly news and is going to continue to suffer for it until we all either figure out where to draw the line (and voice that concern), or learn to appreciate viewer/listener supported news stations. It’s really just that simple…If you want UFO stories stick with Primer Impacto. There’s nothing to be ashamed of; we’ve all picked up the supermarket paper once or twice…*Cough* or subscribe to it. I am not going to blame this all on the viewers, but that is where change will have to start if there will ever be any. On a final note, in regards to Rich’s work; the contextualization of Dr. Thompson’s work in order to show a “co-dependency between reporter and politician” doesn’t take into account the entire basis for what became Gonzo journalism. Thompson, may he rest in peace, understood that line between tabloid and the news. That is the pivotal difference between his writing and what people know today as headline newswriting. He could tell you that the mass orgy at the 71 DNC was fueled by a readily distributed supply of black acid without selling you anything other than his own perspective. That I would say, is much more than Jennings, or any of his contemporaries at ABC World News Tonight for that matter, could ever say about the drivel mongering factory they run.

  • Galen Carter-Jeffrey

    Aliens, yay.

    This article brought up many interesting points that relate to the state of the basic news. I actually did see part of the Peter Jennings broadcast mentioned in this article. It was rather silly, and I couldn’t help but think “Why is this on the news?” This article calls the broadcast “Fluff” intended to boost ratings during February sweeps. This is a common occurrence used to increase Nielson ratings. I guess it worked because my roommate and I watched it for a little bit. I have always had a morbid fascination with Aliens. I am sure the producers know that people would watch it. I don’t know what was worse the fact that it aired or that people gave the show any credit for its “Newsworthiness.”

    The format used in the show kept my attention by having someone who claims to have seen a UFO and then someone of a reputable stature would tell us that it was all a hoax. It was kind of funny too. Eileen wrote “Seeing’s first section fails as good fluff because it oversimplifies.” I disagree. It may have been simple, but at the very least, I felt, it was entertaining and it kept my attention. This brings up another questions. Were the broadcasters trying to entertain or inform? I am guessing entertain because the topic of extra-terrestrial life is mostly hearsay.

    Some of the testimonials, such as the guy who claimed to have gone to Saturn and Venus, is just absurd. I sometimes wonder why the media gives these guys any attention at all. Maybe if I make up some BS story and claim to have been abducted, probed, and visited far off planets, I can be on the “News.”

  • Lawrence Johnson

    Meehan’s article kept on Seeing kept me glued to my screen, hoping that the show would have actually revealed new information on phenomena that has interested me (and I’m guessing quite a few in the RTF field)… extraterrestrials. At last, it seems like the show brought nothing new to the table – not a suprise after a long list of failed 30-minute specials on the topic. Even with the acclaimed production team and narrator… I’m not suprised.

    It’s too often that a ‘news’ show will cover weird science like this, which I’m all for, but practices like glossing over possibly new-contrasts and simplifying complex issues for the sake of time slots and less captured audiences really kills the credibility of the subject itself. It’s bad enough that most UFOlogists are loonies – why dilute the movement with worthless specials from unrelated media?

    My other let down is that the article ends with a cliffhanger about the show’s coverage of ‘Roswell’. I’ll take a look at the show’s transcript, but I really wish Meehan would have kept the ball rolling and ultimately conclude the argument (not just cut it off).

    Here’s to the little green people.

  • Journalism & TV News Programs

    I agree with several of the posters here in that journalism at least in its television is lacking in credibility and thoroughness. As the author points out, “Seeing” fails to make the distinction of the various camps of UFOlogy enthusiasts. While some would make the argument that journalism as a whole is faulty or “dead” as one respondent put it, I believe that the subject matter is what lends the air of erroneousness to this particular segment. As a journalist and a student of pseudoscience, I have very intimate knowledge and experience in this particular realm of discussion. My own personal beliefs aside, one must take into account that a program such as “Seeing” although researched and reported on for a year, allegedly, the format of television bastardizes much of that effort. “Seeing” if I’m not mistaken is a one hour program which is then cut up by commercial breaks and small promotions for the show. Exactly how seriously can one take this type of program? Nearly all shows of this variety are put together to garner the most interest possible. To put it bluntly, they want viewers. Yes these shows can inform, and in many ways they do satisfy that goal, however, the thorough in-depth story you’re looking for won’t be in a one-hour program. If movie length documentaries can’t firmly position UFOlogy, then how can a one-hour show? Again mention of the sweeps airing should automatically alarm any who thought they were getting something more substantial. Yes I know it’s presented as a news program, but the subject matter should ultimately lend one to infer his or her agenda with the material. Just as the Daily Show offers news with a skew, one should also apply certain limitations on news programs such as “Seeing.”

  • Pingback: FlowTV | “Roswell! Roswell! The People Have a Right to Know!”: The State of Fluff, part 2.

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  • I find it to be quite fasinating that many people are constantly looking something new in the UFO realm. Once in a great while you may see something new, such as footage of a UFO, or lights in the sky.. I have found that most of the programs are recaps of incidents that happened long ago. They resurface to maintain an intrest, or enlighten someone who hears, or sees it for the first time. Roswell is only one example.

    The truth to any of it remains a mystery, and yet, many of us watch these programs over, and over again, in hope that something new has come into view. Why is that? What is it that we yearn for? Why do so many of us seek the truth, and others remain satisfied living in denial of what could exist? Could it be fear? Fear of what? What is fear exactly, and where did it begin?

    In my opinion, if humans were the only species that existed in the constant and expanding universe, there must be a funny God out there somewhere. If humans were exposed to the truth, how would our lives be changed? What if humans were created by an alien species, placed on earth, and during the missing link era, they were programmed to fight, and kill each other as an experiment? Killing would serve as a form control in which spiritual development would remain stagnant.. If you look at our society, this is obviously a program that has been handed down from many generations since man has been able to record this activity. As an example, someone sees a spider on the floor, and someone else will say; “KILL IT!” Could fear be another control program of which many of us are unaware?

    There is a book available on the worldwide web called: ” THE NILE OF DENIAL by Klaatu, that explains how this ancient program has inhibited the growth of the human species for thousands of years. It requires an open mind, and a fair amount of intelligence to comprehend
    the message that I, the author Klaatu, attempts to deliver.

    It may be too late.. Nevertheless, I will continue to serve the human race. – Klaatu

  • Some good debate going on here and particularly interested in the chap above’s book. The fact of matter in terms of television and these types of shows is a battle between two aspects (in my view). Television by its very nature must be entertaining and engaging to the viewer however in most cases content such as UFO’s and general paranormal events are not very interesting if only for a few seconds of something out of the ordinary. Television producers therefore have to contend with the limited amount of engaging content against the entertainment factor – otherwise of course, there will be no viewers and therefore no demand to make such programs, and as a consequence we probably would not see anything at all on our screens..

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