Out of Balance

Chris Mooney

How should a self-respecting journalist, one who wants to be deemed credible, cover UFO claims, whether of the roadside sighting variety or those involving alleged abductions and (I can’t resist) sexual molestations? That’s the core issue raised by ABC’s decision last week to air a two-hour primetime special, hosted by Peter Jennings, on precisely this topic. Entitled ”Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs — Seeing is Believing,” the show provides a pretty good example of what not to do. But it does make a few token attempts at serious reportorial skepticism, and while these efforts ultimately fail, they’re instructive for precisely that reason.

“Seeing is Believing” begins, in true mystery-mongering fashion, with a quick opening montage presenting various firsthand UFO stories. Soon Jennings appears, telling us that millions of Americans believe this stuff (ABC’s apparent justification for devoting its energies to UFOs at a time when soldiers are dying in Iraq and Social Security is on the chopping block). Before long we’re introduced to UFO radio guru Art Bell and—in a pattern that will recur throughout the program—witness an artist’s rendition of Bell’s alleged encounter with a big triangular alien spaceship.

After these atmospherics, Jennings and ABC feature one of the case studies they’re apparently banking on—the story of the “Phoenix Lights.” “There have been UFO sightings with hundreds, even thousands of witnesses,” Jennings says, pointing to the night of March 13, 1997, when many Phoenix and other Arizona residents reported observing mysterious lights in the sky. “Seeing is Believing” speaks with numerous eyewitnesses who claim not just to have seen the lights, but even to have spotted the UFO behind them. “I don’t know anything that can go that slow,” one opines.

Only then do we hear from “outspoken skeptic” James McGaha, director of the Grasslands Observatory in Arizona and a CSICOP scientific consultant. “These are clearly flares,” says McGaha of the lights. But after interviewing McGaha, the special flips back to the eyewitnesses again—who, unsurprisingly, reject McGaha’s critique. “I know what I saw,” says one. “I would testify in a court of law,” says another. Jennings then throws up his hands. “Seeing is believing,” is his “balanced” conclusion.

Jennings isn’t breaking any new ground here. Other journalists covering the “Phoenix Lights” have been far more exacting, actually bothering to weigh the evidence and determine whether there’s any basis for a non-mundane interpretation of the phenomenon. For a colorful and suitably skeptical account of one such investigation, see here. Jennings and ABC, however, don’t seem willing to alienate UFO fans too early on in their program.

Soon “Seeing is Believing” launches into a history of UFO sightings in America, going back to the first “flying saucer” tales and putting special emphasis on claims by various pilot eyewitnesses to have seen odd objects while in the air. No skeptics speak during this phase of the show; rather, the stories are all treated as implicitly credible. “There was no critique of the pilot thing at all, and guess what, they interviewed me for over an hour about pilots,” McGaha told me after watching the program. “A lot of people say that pilots can’t make mistakes. I’m a pilot with thousands of hours of flying time. I have seen pilots personally make mistakes in formation with me.”

Up to this point in the program, it’s fair to say “Seeing is Believing” represents a true nightmare for skeptics. But then something shifts, subtly at first. The change begins when Jennings takes a step back and examines the fundamental reason that skeptics and believers disagree about UFO claims. “At issue was the nature of the evidence,” Jennings says. “Mainstream scientists categorically reject eyewitness testimony For scientists, seeing is not believing.”

Then before we know it, we’re off with Seth Shostak and Jill Tartar of the SETI Institute, who are devoted to actual scientific investigation of whether intelligent life exist elsewhere and fully admit they’ve detected no convincing evidence thus far. “If we claim something, there will be data to back it up,” Tartar refreshingly explains.

The wonders continue when suddenly, if only for a brief segment, Jennings moves entirely into the skeptics camp, debunking the well known myth of the Roswell, New Mexico crash (for Skeptical Inquirer‘s account see here). “It didn’t matter that there wasn’t a shred of evidence sixty five percent of Americans said they believed the [Roswell] story,” says Jennings. “Seeing is Believing” leaves us with little doubt that the official explanation is correct: A top-secret Project Mogul surveillance balloon, not an alien spacecraft, crashed on “Mac” Brazel’s ranch on that legendary summer day in 1947. Nevertheless, notes Jennings, Roswell “true believers” continue to debunk and reject the government’s explanations. “They cling to a myth,” he says.

At this point in the show, a critical viewer—who has seen some UFO claims treated in a “balanced” fashion, some presented entirely uncritically, and some debunked—can be permitted the following question. Where does Jennings get off simultaneously bashing the Roswell story and yet taking all the other schlock so seriously?

The clear answer is that his (and ABC’s) skepticism is carefully calibrated and selective. In virtually every case of a UFO claim save the Roswell story—and that includes painful to watch alien abduction stories, which follow later in the show—Jennings plays it lax and detached. At best, he lets us hear from “both sides”—even if, as is quite apparent in some cases, the claims are totally outlandish. (“The beings measured three feet eleven,” says one alleged alien abductee who apparently managed, while lying in bed paralyzed, to get out his tape measure.)

In short, Jennings and ABC want it both ways. On the one hand, they clearly desire a production that will cash in on public enthusiasm for UFO claims, without debunking them too vigorously (lest believers be dismayed). But at the same time, they don’t want to seem overly credulous, lest their very worldly New York City journalistic peers buy them spacesuits for Christmas. And so they wink at us, as if to let on that they know some of this stuff is just plain hooey—while simultaneously leaving the door open to the notion that there just might be a huge government conspiracy to suppress UFO visitations after all.

Alas, selective skepticism has its costs—journalistic and otherwise. As a case study, consider how one skeptical expert approached by the show, James McGaha, wound up being used.

When a representative of the show originally approached him, it concerned a program to be called “Life in the Universe,” which would touch on a number of areas including UFOs but hardly seemed to make them the central focus. But by the time he was interviewed, McGaha relates, “They did not seem very interested in SETI, astrobiology or science in any way, just UFO’s.”

Maybe the producers changed their course before interviewing McGaha. Or maybe they knew all along how the program would turn out. But the result is the same: ABC uses McGaha in its documentary to provide low dose skepticism, without allowing his subversive critiques to undermine its quasi-journalistic project too thoroughly.

The result is entertaining television, but “Seeing is Believing” suffers from a serious lack of intellectual consistency. If we adhere to rigid standards of evidence and actually place the burden of proof on those who make stunning UFO claims, then no current story holds up any better than the Roswell tale. But through the use of selective skepticism, journalistic “balance,” and haphazard suspension of disbelief, ABC and Peter Jennings manage to keep the sense of “mystery’ alive. In light of the difficulty of positively proving any existing UFO claim, that’s probably the most they could possibly accomplish.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.