Monday, September 15, 2008

Newspaper Editors, UFOs, the Greatest Story Ever Untold and Just a Dash of Bobby Kennedy

"Those of us in public life often call upon the press to be more understanding, sometimes with justice. But we also know that the day you are unanimously joined in praise of officials or policies, when power is held in awe and skepticism disappears -- on that day democracy will begin to wither."

"Where the question is one of policy and national direction, the bias -- by government and press -- should be toward disclosure. . .There is always a tendency in government to confuse secrecy with security."

"We are long past the time when a few men could fully comprehend the operations of government."

(-- Remarks by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, from his address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1967.)

You're not likely to find this hardcover volume in a used book store, but copies probably still repose in libraries and in the basements of surviving newspapers all over the country. I use the word, "surviving" because, tragically, the newspaper industry currently struggles to avoid dinosaur heaven in numerous U.S. markets.

In February of 1968 I shelled out $3.50 for a copy of Problems of Journalism: Proceedings of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1967 (pictured). In historical terms, this was a great purchase. Obtaining this particular volume was a must, for this annual convention, held during three April days in Washington, DC, featured something a little different: A Saturday session devoted to a discussion about UFOs. This was a very well-attended meeting with editors from newspapers all over the country, including editors-in-chief from my own Syracuse area, J. Leonard Gorman (The Post-Standard) and William D. Cotter (the former Herald-Journal).

Of additional interest was that NY Senator Robert F. Kennedy spoke, presumably Saturday evening after the UFO discussion and the luncheon which followed, at the Society's annual banquet. His comments were not related to the UFO issue, but (as noted above) proved no less relevant to its government and media status. The following year (1968), the world would react with shock and dismay upon learning of RFK's assassination during his presidential campaign.

"The UFOs -- What Goes on Here?", a panel discussion transcribed word-for-word in this 1967 volume, as were all presentations on government, social issues, etc., included a few guests of note. First to speak were pilot William Powell and his friend Muriel McClave, who shared a dramatic UFO encounter just a year before. Powell, a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who transferred to the US Army Air Corps in 1942 and later flew commercially for KLM Airlines, joined Bell Aircraft Corp. as an engineering test pilot in 1951. In 1959 he became a company pilot for Sears Roebuck and held that position when the UFO encounter occurred.

Having just passed over Willow Grove Naval Air Station in PA at 4,500 feet, Powell and McClave observed jets taking off and circling below them in pairs. As a pair of jet aircraft climbed and proceeded straight ahead of Powell, something he thought was another aircraft approached from the left, headed toward the departing jets. Powell and then his passenger suddenly realized the intruder was no conventional aircraft. The object quickly made an astounding right angle turn and headed directly toward Powell's plane. "We just watched this thing," he stated, " and it proceeded by us. . .at the same altitude approximately 100 yards away. . .and it disappeared from my vision."

"We had a very, very clear picture of it at that distance. . .It was actually, you might say, saucer-shaped with a slightly raised dome at the top. It was all well-defined, very clear. The bottom of it was.. .a very brilliant red. The top, the slightly raised dome, was a very brilliant white. We could not see any portholes or anything -- just a solid object, no lines on it except these two colors."

Next was a brief presentation by Maj. Hector Quintanilla, Jr., at that time the chief of the Air Force's UFO entity, Project Blue Book. Quintanilla's scope of interest was primarily to lay out the Air Force's position on UFOs, and there were, of course, no amazing revelations.

Also along for the ride at this unusual convention session -- or perhaps it shouldn't be called unusual, because the whole idea came about simply because the country had been awash in UFO news reports -- was the late Dr. Donald Menzel, the Harvard astronomer unquestionably attributed as the most notorious UFO "skeptic" (actually a debunker, dear reader, a d-e-b-u-n-k-e-r, and always remember Robert's advice -- skeptic good, debunker very, very bad) in the U.S. I wouldn't dream of refreshing the masses with his nonsensical prattle and inaccuracies regarding UFO reports, but he did make one comment worth noting during his speech:

"The Air Force has made its mistakes. They never have had enough scientists in the project. They have failed to follow up certain sightings of special importance. To me their questionnaire is amateurish, almost cleverly designed in certain cases to get the wrong answer and lose track of the facts. The Air Force is aware of my criticism."

Aside from veteran pilot William Powell's UFO encounter, the most worthwhile presentation came from atmospheric physicist Dr. James E. McDonald. The late Dr. McDonald was a rarity among his fellows, as a scientist who actually took the time to investigate impressive UFO sightings and speak with high-caliber witnesses. What he discovered amazed him and set him on a course of writing scientific articles and giving lectures about the importance of the UFO issue all over the world. Unfortunately, Dr. McDonald encountered not only the UFO subject, but personal problems as well (having nothing to do with his UFO interest), eventually resulting in two suicide attempts, the last being fatal. His loss much too soon to UFO research and the scientific world craving his warnings and input remains inestimable.

We must keep in mind the time frame in 1967. The Air Force had just awarded the University of Colorado about $300,000 to conduct a supposedly open-minded UFO study, uninfluenced by the Air Force or other official agencies. At this juncture, it was far too early to realize how flawed the Colorado study would become as project members were bullied and memos reflecting pronounced unscientific negativity made the rounds. For all of the science and statistical information that did result from Dr. Edward U. Condon's project, the fact that Condon had insisted almost from the start on negative findings about the phenomenon made Colorado's conclusions both suspect and in no way the final word about UFOs. Also, a high proportion of the UFO incidents specifically examined in the study ultimately remained unexplained.

Recalling the United States UFO wave of 1952, a period that precipitated formation of the CIA's "Robertson Panel" of scientists who wanted to actively downplay the UFO issue publicly in order to avoid clogging vital intelligence channels with troublesome UFO reports, McDonald told the audience of his recent visit to Maj. Quintanilla's Project Blue Book office: "I was startled when I. . . saw five feet of shelving just devoted to the 1952 wave of sightings."

The five Robertson Panel scientists who met in 1953, noted McDonald, ". . .spent two days together, and two days is just not enough to look at this problem." Later, this time taking the room filled with newspaper editors to task, McDonald chides one and all:

"Something is going on here of the greatest scientific interest that has been shoved under a rug, ridiculed and laughed out of court. You and your feature writers have helped ridicule it. It's easier to write a funny story. And once the Air Force tells you there is nothing to it, what is more logical than to say, 'People see things; there are a lot of nuts around the country?' And that has led to the net effect that very few of these are reported.

"For example, Mr. Powell's report never got on the wires."

Are there conspiracies involved? Not exactly, according to Dr. McDonald: ". . .I do not think it is a grand coverup. It is a grand foulup, a foulup of incredible proportions, unprecedented in my experience.

"If you read The New York Times and your own paper, you won't have heard of (specific new reports mentioned), because we have collectively helped the Air Force forget about this somewhat uncomfortable problem. And you have helped. Yet, the evidence is simply astounding."

What are UFOs not? "They are not advanced test vehicles; they are not hallucinations," warns McDonald. "I have had three sessions with psychologists and I have asked them, 'Is there anything in your clinical experience that would match this?' The answer is, 'No, it certainly doesn't sound like anything psychological.'" And there are radar incidents aplenty, he notes, effectively kept under wraps since 1953.

Almost prophetically, McDonald comments about the new, doomed Colorado project: "I am uneasy about the Colorado Program. There is not nearly enough scientific talent on that program. I have said that quite openly. . .to many people in Washington. It should be beefed up immediately. What we need is much more attention to this problem, and that, unfortunately, requires money.

"But it also requires people, and that is what is short out at Colorado. I'm afraid they have not taken the problem seriously enough to muster the scientific talent to do justice to that."

Conjuring up the agency NASA, McDonald adds, " Amusingly, all my efforts to interest NASA in this gives me the feeling that they think it's nonsense, too. I think they have been hoodwinked and sort of unintentionally brainwashed for years and years. . .It's just a foulup. But a foulup of really incredible proportions."

Recounting other aspects of his research, McDonald states, "There are many airline reports in the old evidence. But once the Air Force began to discredit pilots -- and they have, in some cases, unmercifully discredited them -- that source of information pretty much dried up.

"That can be changed. Mobile teams need to be prepared. . .I discussed this in the Pentagon last week with the people who know a great deal more about that sort of thing than I do."

Again, gently scolding newspaper editors for their handling of UFO news reports, he offers, "The heart of the problem is the 'ridicule lid,' and you're sitting on it. You're sitting on it in a way that is very important. Get off the lid! That is, get your wire service people to take it seriously; look at the problem yourself; examine it for yourself and get off that lid, because that is a big part of the problem now."

More than 40 years after McDonald's presentation before the newspaper editors of America, his words still ring true. Colorado University's UFO project was ultimately a waste of tax money, as well as a scientific research disgrace, UFOs still require investigation (for my part, I'm quite happy not to have been in a nearby aircraft when that very recent UFO hovering over Chicago's O'Hare Airport shot upward, blasting a hole into any clouds obstructing its exit, thank you), and many among the working press still find the UFO topic as laughable as a pie in the face.

The UFO has been the subject of other media events throughout the years, but the 1967 conference was rather a breakthrough event for the nation's press, and any newspaper editor who walked away uninspired one way or the other on that April 22, 1967 Saturday probably never had a clue what -30- meant, either.*

(*For you newborns out there, -30- is an old newspaper term that signified the end of an article submitted for publication in a newspaper. In fact, don't you know, there was even a movie with that title, starring Jack Webb. And (sigh...) now you're going to wonder who Jack Webb was. Well, he starred in "Pete Kelly's Blues" and. . .who was Pete Kelly, you ask? Watch the movie. Anyway, Webb was also in "The D.I." So, you ask, then what's a D. . .hey, heard of "Dragnet?" No? Well. . .)