The 1937 disappearance of pioneer pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in the Pacific Ocean has been the subject of continuing research, debate, and speculation—most recently in a July 9 show titled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. Here is the History Channel’s explanation of the show’s premise:
Buried in the National Archives for nearly 80 years, a newly rediscovered photo may hold the key to solving one of history’s all-time greatest mysteries. On July 2, 1937, near the end of her pioneering flight around the world, Amelia Earhart vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean…. Now, new evidence has surfaced in U.S. government archives suggesting Earhart might not have crashed into the Pacific at all, but crash-landed in the Marshall Islands, was captured by the Japanese military and died while being held prisoner on the island of Saipan.
The much-touted new evidence is a photo found by retired federal agent Les Kinney in the National Archives apparently taken at the Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands. A ship can be seen towing a barge, and there are several people on a nearby dock. The show claims that two of the people pictured are Earhart and Noonan, and another even blurrier image in the background is their plane. Much of this hinges on cutting-edge facial recognition software. If the photo is what it’s claimed to be, it means that the “lost” pair were alive and well on a dock in the Marshall Islands in 1937. That still doesn’t fully explain where they went after the photo was taken, and as noted the show suggests they were captured by the Japanese and died in prison on Saipan—a fact that the U.S. government knew about and covered up.
This idea is only one of many theories put forth over the years—and widely rejected for lack of evidence. While Earhart’s precise fate remains unknown, the most widely accepted explanation is also the most mundane: they ran out of fuel and their plane crashed into the vast Pacific Ocean. In an effort to breathe life (and ratings) into a theory heavy on speculation but light on evidence, the History Channel offered what they claimed was something akin to a smoking gun: a blurry photograph of what might or might not be Earhart and Noonan.
Doubts were raised about that explanation before the show aired and quickly escalated afterward. As National Geographic explained in a July 11 article, “New evidence indicates that the photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. As Japanese military history blogger Kota Yamano noted in a July 9 post, he found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library, using the term ‘Jaluit Atoll,’ the location featured in the photograph” (see https://tinyurl.com/y8s67f4r).
Instead of being hidden in a secret archive deep in the guarded National Security vaults, the image popped up on the first page of search results: “His search query turned up the travelogue, The Ocean’s ‘Lifeline’: The Condition of Our South Seas, which features the ‘Earhart’ photograph on page 44. One translation of the caption describes a lively port that regularly hosted schooner races—with no mention of Earhart or Noonan to be found. Page 113 of the book indicates that the travelogue was published in October 1935.”
This of course poses a problem because the photo was published two years before Earhart’s final flight. Yamano said in an interview: “I find it strange that the documentary makers didn’t confirm the date of the photograph or the publication in which it originally appeared. That’s the first thing they should have done.” The History Channel promised viewers in a July 9 tweet that “after tonight, the story of Amelia Earhart will no longer have a question mark.” This prediction turned out to be prophetic; indeed, the single question mark has since been replaced by dozens of question marks—ranging from the integrity of the History Channel to the competence of its on-air researchers.
While skeptics, historians, and sensible people can revel in a touch of schadenfreude, a closer look at the show is warranted. There are surely some executives at the History Channel who—like the general public—are wondering how their program could have gone so spectacularly off the rails. Perhaps the most glaring error is over-interpreting ambiguous evidence and reading too much into what is ultimately a very limited and inconclusive data set. The photograph at the heart (and referenced in the title) of Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence is simply not good evidence of anything relating to Earhart; links to her are based purely on speculation and conjecture. There’s nothing wrong with guesses and theories—as long as they are presented as such and not all-but-verified facts. Absent strong corroborating evidence, one theory is as good as the next. Add some confirmation bias and failure to question assumptions and verify facts, and you’ve got another cable channel failure.
The show takes great pains to demonstrate that the photograph had not been altered or retouched, which is a good first step in authentication but sheds no light whatsoever on the key issue of whether the image depicts Earhart and Noonan. There was never any reason to doubt the image’s authenticity in the first place, and surely a photographic faker trying to deceive could have crafted a much better likeness of both aviators. In a statement, the History Channel said that it has a team of investigators “exploring the latest developments about Amelia Earhart” and promised transparency in their findings, concluding that “ultimately historical accuracy is most important to us and our viewers.”