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.”
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.’ 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, 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.’ Among the contactees were George Adamski, George Van Tassel, and Orfeo Angelucci.
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. 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.
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.
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