The hollow roar of condescension

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank caught red-handed feigning interest in Stephen Bassett’s panel discussion on UFOs at the National Press Club in 2007 [CREDIT: Paradigm Research Group]

In 2017, Pulitzer Prize-winning ex-New York Times reporter Alex S. Jones wrote an essay about how democracy was better off because of intense but constructive competition between his former employer and The Washington Post. He traced their interlocking trajectories to the Pentagon Papers/Watergate fireworks of the early 1970s, when both camps staked out each other’s sites to grab and devour first-run copies.

Jones’ nostalgia trip ended on a recollection of his own award-winning coup 30 years ago, when the Times broke the story of the collapse of the Bingham newspaper empire in Louisville. “What I recall most about the experience,” he wrote, “was that beating the Post felt like hitting a home run for the Yankees against the Red Sox.”

Jones’s retrospective ran that August, four months before the Times clobbered the Post again. But NYT’s December 2017 expose was no ordinary story – this one ripped the tarp off the Pentagon’s secret $22 million UFO research project. Within hours, the WaPo would make a game effort to follow up with its own reporting, mostly rehash from its archrival’s bellringer. But on that day – still too close for historians to recognize the milestone for what it was and is – the NYT punctured the containment wall surrounding the biggest story in human history. And details have been dribbling out ever since.

Into this transition walks Joel Achenbach, the seasoned explainer who covers science and politics for the Post. Prodded, he wrote, by “friends and colleagues” to weigh in “because the topic is hot right now,” Achenbach produced an illuminating defense of his reluctance to wade beyond his ankles into the UFO controversy. It was, in fact, so uninspired and incurious it could stand as a template for the longstanding failure of the entire Fourth Estate to meet this challenge. More on that in a moment. But first, let’s be clear:

The biases of a single reporter aren’t likely to shape a newsroom’s editorial policy on any given issue (unless, of course, like way too many newsrooms, the staff is down to the executive editor/metro reporter and two unpaid interns). Also: Were it not for a small band of Pentagon insiders determined to deliver this bombshell of a story to the NYT, it’s doubtful America’s de facto newspaper of record would’ve built a case from scratch. Lest we forget, when it comes to UFOs/UAP, the Times, like the Post, has a lengthy track record of dismissive reporting and blown opportunities

Now, consider the media response triggered by the 12/17 revelations – 60 Minutes, The New Yorker, Scientific American, the wire services, you name it, they’ve all taken the plunge. In fact, says Stephen Bassett, get a load of the Washington Post itself. By his count, they’ve now run more UFO-related pieces recently than the Times, 36 to 26. Doing real journalism.

Founder of the 25-year-old Paradigm Research Group, Bassett has invited his share of snark darts for trying to shape the phenomenon as a political issue for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Prominent among the boo-birds is WaPo political columnist Dana Milbank, who in 2007 brought his famously contrarian eye to Bassett’s “X-Conference” at the National Press Club.

Milbank might well have wondered why a prominent attorney like Daniel Sheehan – Silkwood, the Berrigan Brothers, Wounded Knee, Watergate burglar James McCord, Iran-Contra – decided to lend his voice to Bassett’s initiative. (Sheehan’s latest client: AATIP whistleblower Luis Elizondo, seeking remedy against the Pentagon for allegations of character assassination and the illegal scrubbing of official-business email records.) Or he might have pressed retired USAF Capt. Robert Salas for a few more details about that nuclear missile shutdown at Malmstrom AFB in 1967.

But Milbank was going for quick giggles instead. Citing a lack of political representation for “life forms who arrived on these shores with little more than the antennae on their backs,” he wrote that “these beings are now seeking to play a role in the 2008 presidential campaign.” Milbank played up the panel’s weakest links, then asked a handful of Democratic flacks if their respective candidates planned to end the ET “truth embargo.” A rep from Hillary Clinton’s camp responded with the money quote: “Let me check in with the mother ship.” Hilarious.

Two months later, November 2007, with another UFO forum set for the National Press Club, Milbank circled back for more easy pickin’s. But there was no soft tissue in this lineup. As researchers Leslie Kean and James Fox presided, more than a dozen government and military officials with airtight credentials, from Belgium to Iran to Peru, brought pieces of the global mystery to the public table.

Milbank ignored altogether the accounts of those largely military run-ins, and didn’t write a word. But at least one journo who decided to play it straight inadvertently prompted a colleague to come to his rescue. “The conference took place in Washington,” noted CNN correspondent Gary Tuchman, “and the cast of characters was almost, strangely, well, conventional.”

CNN anchor Jack Cafferty, however, rushed to absolve his cohort of objectivity: “Gary Tuchman is one of the most distinguished and capable reporters in this business, and that’s not the culmination of a fine career, being sent to cover the UFO convention, OK?”

Salas, the combat crew commander at the Malmstrom launch control center in ‘67, returned to the National Press Club in 2010, along with half a dozen fellow Air Force veterans and UFOs and Nukes author Robert Hastings. All described UFO incursions over SAC bases housing atomic weapons, and the press conference was livestreamed on CNN. Milbank was a no-show this time. But fellow WaPo columnist John Kelly was there. Kelly’s bovine riff about dropping in for the free cookies is a classic among folks who think the press is congenitally incapable of reflecting legitimate public interest in this controversy.

Which brings us to Joel Achenbach.

Achenbach is no stranger to the subject, having attended Steven Greer’s Disclosure Project gathering in Washington in 2001. His dispatch would spotlight some of the most sensational moments – we’ve been visited by exactly 57 alien species, proclaimed one speaker – and it disregarded completely the guy with the actual goods, i.e., John Callahan. Former division chief of the FAA’s Accidents and Investigations Branch, Callahan brought a literal bundle of printouts of radar data from a 31-minute Japan Airlines 747 brush with a ginormous glowing sphere off Alaska in 1986. WaPo’s uninformed readers, however, learned only that the discussion “established beyond the shadow of a doubt … that there really do exist people who believe in UFOs.”

For his skills of derision and avoidance over the years, Achenbach was honored by the National Capital Area Skeptics in 2011 with the Philip J. Klass Award. Senior editor for 34 years at the industry standard Aviation Week & Space Technology, Klass proudly wore the mantle of America’s foremost UFO debunker until his death in 2005. To that tradition, Achenbach contributed his 1999 book Captured by Aliens, in which the true masters of the universe are visionaries like Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, who know better than to waste time with confounding anomalies cluttering our own atmosphere; instead, they assure Earthlings that ET is at a safe distance, light years away, on the other end of a radio telescope, waiting for us to dial in.

On August 11, despite the tides of curiosity apparently beginning to roll against him, Achenbach reminded readers of his cred as a seriously rational science guy in a WaPo essay whose title sounded like a plea for colleagues to quit doing journalism. In “UFO Mania is Out of Control. Please Stop,” the author of the Why Things Are nonfiction trilogy renewed his efforts to marginalize research into UAP.

Borrowing Milbank’s “Far Side” cartoon imagery, Achenbach insisted that the chances of UFOs commanded by “actual alien beings, from deep space, with the tentacles and the antennae and so on,” are “0.0000 and then add some more zeroes, before eventually, begrudgingly – because I’m so intellectually flexible – putting a little 1 out there somewhere to the right …”

The “Please Stop” screed makes a heroic effort to cast those who want to learn more about UFOs as “believers,” to denigrate the phenomena as religion (“they’re a little bit like angels”), and to cushion his unhappy-messenger chores with the solemnity of a Mayberry mortician (“Over the years I have found less joy in telling the believers that what they believe is not true”). Its focus is so singular and desperate, the essay begs a line-by-line rebuttal. And I would do that. Except at 4,381 words, “Please Stop” is already too long for most attention spans to process.

If, however, there were a market for italicized counterpoints, here’s how mine might look.

“I am reluctant to write about physics-defying objects,” Achenbach writes, “because I am busy enough covering stories involving things that obey the laws of physics [Obviously — so Please Stop].”

“Make no mistake. I want to be the reporter who goes out on a limb and breaks the space aliens story. I want my name on a front-page story with a 72-point headline saying THEY’RE HERE.” [Why not check the ego at the door and aim for something a little less hyperbolic, like: High-Performance Technology Is Interfering With Military Operations — And the Pentagon With Its $700B Budget Has No Idea WTF Is Going On?]

“To do any kind of UFO story requires a descent into the rabbit hole of ufology, and that hole is bottomless. And this isn’t the kind of story where you can do a lot of field work. [Ever heard of FOIA?]

“The republic of science has some cultural norms and ground rules. One of them is openness. That means you have to show your data. [Ever made a FOIA for the unedited raw footage of the 2013 Border Patrol surveillance video tracking a UFO that enters the shallows off northwestern Puerto Rico and reemerges as two separate objects?]”

“UFO proponents say these vehicles move in ways that defy the laws of physics. To my eye this suggests a prosaic explanation, which is misinterpretation, instrument malfunction, etc. [Is etc. what USN pilots David Fravor, Ryan Graves, Chad Underwood, Alex Dietrich and Jim Slaight said when you interviewed them?]”

“One thing I discovered while reporting my book is that people who believe in ideas that I found extremely improbable were not crazy or uneducated. [Are you just trying to stop me from killing myself?] Nor uninformed. They did research too. [Probably just stupid FOIA stuff.] They just processed information differently. They had different sources of information. [Because they couldn’t find it in the Washington Post.]”

Journalism is evolving rapidly into a frontier that is at once new and likely ancient. The New York Times, not the Washington Post, will go down in history as the platform that made it possible. Going forward, however, the Post has the resources and connections to beat its archrival again and again, and to elevate this issue into a Nixon era-style investigative slugfest. For the good of that mission, for all of us, drag chutes like Joel Achenbach should stick to the known world — and get out of the way.