I’ll be the first to admit it: I bought this story hook, line and sinker. It had all the right elements to be believable: a Senate majority leader going on the record to confirm a report by a former Pentagon employee told to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists. Those facets made the story rock-solid on a pure reputational basis, and made people like me who want to believe less likely to criticize the holes in the piece.
Like the gaping hole that is the raison d’etre for this story’s existence: a government-funded Nevada-based project greenlit by the Senator from Nevada. Per the NYT:
The shadowy program — parts of it remain classified — began in 2007, and initially it was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time and who has long had an interest in space phenomena. Most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space.
This should have been a giant red flag, but it wasn’t enough to derail the story, which included incredible assertions like this:
The company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. In addition, researchers also studied people who said that they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for physiological changes.
If this is true, it is the biggest news of our lifetime: the government is holding potential extraterrestrial material that has a supposed ability to alter our physical state. It was crazy to me how everyone just seemed to accept this and blow past it, but such is 2017. Now, thanks to Jeff Wise’s wise column in New York Mag, I am no longer dismayed about the lack of attention given to what now seems to be a non-story. Wise raises important questions about the Times’ extraordinary description above:
The straightforward presentation of these assertions implies that the authors believe them to be true. But they beg for elaboration. Were the produced documents credible? In what way were the buildings modified, and why was it necessary to modify them in order to store this material? What does it mean for an object to be associated with a phenomenon? What were the claimed physical effects, and were any physiological changes found?
Making portentous assertions out of context is a powerful technique for creating a sense of mystery and drama. Leaving a question unanswered implies that it is unanswerable. Selectively omitting key details can make a mundane fact seem uncanny. These techniques are great for exciting an audience, but they’re better suited to Ancient Aliens than the pages of the New York Times because the net effect is to cloud rather than illuminate key issues. In this case: What exactly did Elizondo’s team uncover?
The only hard evidence provided in the NYT account is a video of an unknown object traveling at what the Department of Defense says to be unreachable speeds, but that is not obvious to the naked eye. With the focus fairly steady and no definitive background to compare it to, it seems as if the unidentified drone-like object is simply gliding through the air, and the video without the explanation would surely not provide conclusive evidence.
The explanation is what gives this story credence and makes that clip much more enthralling than at first glance, but again, once you begin to pick at this story, it gets real flimsy really fast. Per Wise:
Neither the story nor the video are new, however. Both have been kicking around the internet for some time. Fravor’s tale first appeared in March, 2015, on the website FighterSweep.com, where writer Paco Chierici presented a detailed story as told to him by “a good buddy of mine and former squadron mate, Dave ‘Sex’ Fravor.” Chierici advises that it’s “one of the most bizarre aviation stories of all time … a story that stretches credibility.”
In a follow-up story for the Times Insider about how the story came to be, reporter Ralph Blumenthal makes it sound like the Times scored an exclusive by getting Elizondo to open up to them, writing that he and two colleagues “met Mr. Elizondo in a nondescript Washington hotel where he sat with his back to the wall, keeping an eye on the door.” The implication is that Elizondo feared the repercussions of leaking sensitive information for the first time.
In fact, when Elizondo spoke to the Times he had left government and was promoting the launch of a new venture called To the Stars … Academy of Arts & Science, a website that is trying to crowdsource donations to study paranormal phenomena. Before the Times told his story, To the Stars’ main shareholder, former Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge, had previously promoted the venture on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer like me, I urge you to read this debunker in NYMag. This simply looks like a story where Harry Reid’s buddy ran out of government money, and is now in the middle of a fundraising push to promote stories like the one that appeared in the Times. The UFO video provided is not new, nor was the NYT’s story, yet it was presented as such. This is a topic where a more evidence than we think exists—like this declassified CIA memo saying the U.S.S.R. and China were studying UFOs—and a scoop saying that a government program for UFOs exists is nothing new. The most harrowing parts of the NYT’s article have no proof of their assertion, and one assumes that if they did obtain it, they would produce evidence that the government holds unknown alloys that can have physical effects on humans. I want to believe the Times, but after looking at this story more critically, I just can’t.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.