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Letter to the editor:
You owed your reporter an apology
When a newspaper sells out an entire day’s run, it’s usually a good idea to keep reporting on whatever it is that readers are so concerned about.
If UFO behavior can be disruptive, it can also — sometimes, oddly enough — extend a chance to repair the damage created by its presence. The idea never occurred to me until the five-part docuseries “UFOs: Investigating the Unknown” debuted on NatGeo last week.
Now streaming on Hulu as well, it provides historical context for why the phenomenon is being confronted by active National Defense Authorization Act legislation. But the series also offers something a little different — a micro-level glimpse of UFOs’ prickly fit into modern journalism.
The project was stewarded by author/investigative journo Leslie Kean and directed by Ricki Stern, whose documentary work is eclectic. She’s done a range of bios – Joan Rivers, Jeffrey Epstein, former ISIS jihadi Tania Joya, to name a few – and switched gears to adapt Kean’s 2017 nonfiction book, “Surviving Death,” into a six-part series. What distinguishes Stern’s latest is the way she freshens up familiar material with unexplored storylines. Nowhere is it more dramatic than a return visit to Stephenville, the Texas cow town that hosted one of the best documented incidents on record.
The audacious behemoth that shadowed Stephenville on January 8, 2008, produced nary a photo or a video that looked convincing. What it did leave behind was a massive trail of radar records so thorough and detailed, they forced the Air Force to reverse its initial assertion that it had no aircraft in the area that night (they had 10 F-16s).
Then-MUFON investigator Robert Powell and Glen Schulze turned the data into an implicit indictment of slack security in the air space around George Bush’s “Western White House” in Crawford, where the UFO was last detected on radar. Its tracks also indicated that one of those warplanes had closed to within a mile of the enigma earlier in the evening, before the target made its way to Crawford. Yet, 15 years later, not a single pilot who flew out of Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth has ever spoken up about it. Maybe they never will.
A little too ‘tabloidish’
But it wouldn’t have been a story at all were it not for the efforts of Angelia Joiner, a reporter with the local daily, the Empire-Tribune. A big personality with a drawl like Molly Ivins, Joiner knew zilch about the UFO controversy at large when high strangeness came to town. But the morning after the sightings, swamped with leads, she did her job and got blown away by the sheer volume of eyewitnesses.
Anyone who’s ever tried to work a serious UFO story into a corporate news platform will appreciate what Joiner was up against. Stern gets Sara Vanden Berge, the Empire-Trib’s managing editor for 14 years, to spell it out on camera. Like Joiner, Vanden Berge was equally clueless about this UFO business.; unlike Joiner, she was afraid of it.
“It’s the thought of the little green men coming out of the spaceship. It was sort of tabloidish to me,” Vanden Berge says. “That was my concern. As a journalist who wanted to be taken seriously. I was afraid that this would somehow taint my reputation. So I said (to Joiner), put something together and pitch it to me tomorrow evening when I get back to the office and then we’ll talk about it.”
But the news was too spectacular to hold. Joiner and the publisher plugged the story into the paper after Vanden Berge left work. The piece ran the next day, 1A, above the fold, with a 72-point headline. Vanden Berge never saw it coming. After getting a look at the paper that morning, she was apoplectic. “I almost had a nervous breakdown right then,” she recalls. “I could not believe that that had happened overnight.
“Two hours into my day, I got a call from the publisher. He said things are blowing up — we’ve sold out of every paper that we had,” Vanden Berge remembers. “That was my first indication that, like, wow, people are really interested in this.”
‘I was so wrong’
Yeah, no shit, and it was a windfall for the neighborhood economy, which capitalized on the tourists, media and other out-of-towners converging on Stephenville for more details. Residents jammed town hall meetings, they talked of seeing pursuit jets on afterburners, they heard the military say sorry, not us, only to watch them ‘fess up to having planes in the air but no, the UFO, not ours, sorry. Joiner’s continuing coverage drew news teams from as far away as Japan, Brazil and the UK, and she helped spread the story on prime-time venues like CNN with Larry King.
Patience wearing thin, Vanden Berge told Joiner to quit reporting on the biggest story to ever hit Stephenville and get back to writing about the price of eggs. Joiner was incredulous. But the order was non-negotiable, so she gave her two-week notice. When Joiner returned to work the next morning, her Rolodex and office computer were already locked away.
“Sadly, when Angelia left, we never spoke again,” Vanden Berge admits. “I hate that story really divided us, but it did.” A hint of emotion after watching an old video replay of Joiner defending her instincts. “You know, it’s funny to see that, um …” She removes her glasses. “Sorry, I just, I haven’t seen Angelia in a long time. And she loved that story.” Vanden Berge’s voice breaks. “And I look back on that time, and I think, I’m so wrong, and I thought I was so smart.” She wipes her eyes. “And I was so wrong. Because they had the foresight to see something that I couldn’t. And people did love that story. It was fun for them.”
Joiner never went back to daily journalism. She wound up serving her community by teaching children at the local Head Start program. In December 2020, before the vaccine rollout, she informed Facebook friends that she and husband Randell had both been hospitalized with COVID-19. On January 6, 2021, she broke the news from her sickbed — Randell was gone. Joiner then tapped out what would be her final post: “I would be a fool to say I’m not scared to death.” She died the next day, at age 59.
Now, two years later, Sara Vanden Berge makes a surprising confession. She talks about what happened in 2009, a year after the UFO created the ruckus in Stephenville. She was driving her daughter to gymnastics class, early evening, dusk, when the UFO revealed itself once more and made the sky turn hallucinogenic:
“I saw the exact same thing that everyone else had been talking about the year prior” – expansively arrayed magnesium-intensity blobs of light, rearranging themselves in gaudy geometric patterns, before streamlining into a straight vertical line and taking off.
A crash course for newbies
“I get goosebumps now, just remembering it. Oh my god,” Vanden Berge says, “that’s what we’ve been writing about for a year, and I was the biggest skeptic of all, and here I am. It was a strange moment, for sure.
“The next day I got to the office, never planned to say a word to anybody. And we had about a dozen calls that day from others who said, oh my gosh, I think I saw that again. That’s when I sort of went, OK, there really was something to this. But it took me that long.
“The government should be looking into this, of course.”
The revelation might’ve been an invitation for Vanden Berge to contact Joiner and perhaps reconcile. But that never happened. Human pride is a pretty tough cut of meat to swallow.
Mostly, “UFOs: Investigating the Unknown” is a crash course for newbies on how we’ve come from the USAF Blue Book con job in 1969 to the irrefutable evidence now under formal congressional scrutiny. Which brings us to one last point — for now — about UFOs and journalism.
Initially, the series had the support of CNN, the logical outlet for maximum mainstream impact. The network’s documentary/series division, after all, is pretty good at generating headlines from dated, overlooked, or obscure material. After picking up “Blackfish” at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, for instance, CNN’s showcasing of Sea World’s coverup of a homicidal orca forced sweeping changes in the industry. Its sponsorship of the “RBG” profile was nominated for an Academy Award in 2018, and “Navalny,” a look at Russia’s most fearless dissident, is a frontrunner to win an Oscar this year.
When CNN decided to scrap the UFO project last summer, conspiracy chatter greeted the news. But the reality was more mundane and dispiriting. Installed as CNN’s new boss after Warner Bros. Discovery devoured Time Warner for $42B, Chris Licht announced its future documentaries would be produced solely by in-house resources. So long, UFOs.
Vanilla man on the defensive
Liberty Media chairman John Malone – who donated a quarter mil to Trump’s inauguration party seven years ago – is a major shareholder with Discovery, and news of the merger’s first casualties raised concerns that CNN was embarked on a rightward lurch to mitigate declining ratings. It retired Brian Stelter’s weekly independent review of media foibles, “Reliable Sources,” and veteran White House reporter John Harwood was shown the door following critical remarks about Trump.
To be fair, no one last summer could’ve foreseen the firestorm of UFO talk that erupted this month during the spy-balloon shootdown saga. And the fact is, the gods themselves couldn’t have timed it better when NatGeo, after having acquired the series, unwittingly scheduled the premiere for the middle of the raging controversy. This is true as well: Nobody expects the CEO of a media empire as sprawling as CNN to micromanage every last detail of editorial product.
That said, we did know this last summer: the UFO phenomenon is no longer the monkey-headed mermaid at a P.T. Barnum sideshow, and that bipartisan lawmakers are gunning for accountability. We also expect visionary leaders to identify trends well ahead of the curve. In Licht’s case, due diligence might include, oh, I dunno, maybe taking an inventory of all current and pending projects before deciding what to dump? But here’s how Licht responded to critics during a Financial Times interview in November, and it rates a one-word response.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about my vision is that I want to be vanilla, that I want to be centrist,” he said. “That is bullshit. You have to be compelling, you have to have an edge. Either way, you don’t see it through a lens of left or right.”
Vanilla. Right now, Mr. Licht, you are vanilla. And you might consider Lasik.
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