One side of the room was decorated in ancient chic—reproductions of Egyptian and African artifacts, globes and maps. The other side of the room, leading toward the front door of the low-slung house nestled on a forested street, was hung with posters of well-muscled men, mementos from Tsoukalos’ then-career as a bodybuilding promoter. Tsoukalos himself was all smiles, his tall black hair not yet grown to the prodigious height now so well-known. Dressed casually in a blue oxford and chinos, he seemed youthful and ebullient.
I was a college student a few weeks shy of 21, young and arrogant but already disillusioned with college life. I had realized that I had chosen my major and my career path poorly, and it was time for a change. It was the early spring of 2002, and this would be one of the last pieces I would create as a student of television journalism. I would finish out the degree, but I added to it a second major in anthropology, which suited me somewhat better.
With me were two other students, Nikolai and Josh, and they fiddled with the camera—and ancient, heavy model that recorded on videocassette—and worked to set up the three point lighting in the space Tsoukalos had cleared out in front of his desk, with a dramatic backdrop of his books. From the right angle, it would look as though his library went on forever.
How lucky, I thought, that the head of the Archaeology, Aeronautics, and SETI Research Association (AAS-RA, popularly known as the Ancient Astronaut Society), lived here in Ithaca, N.Y., only a couple of miles down the hill from my college dorm. I recalled how exciting it was to discover this fact during a then-novel bout of internet research, and how I had pushed my teammates to agree to a profile of Tsoukalos for our Television Journalism Workshop project when it was my turn to play “reporter” and serve as the on-camera personality. In retrospect, it was already obvious that I had lost my love for journalism and was trying to keep myself interested by pushing for stories that overlapped my extracurricular interests.
So here I was sitting across from Giorgio Tsoukalos preparing to ask him questions about the ancient astronaut theory. Tsoukalos reminded me twice before we started that he had been interviewed on NBC and the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy), and it was a great boon that a worldly entrepreneur and scholar would choose to speak to students. Tsoukalos was, and remains, just three years older than me.* He and I had attended the same school, Ithaca College. Though his Wikipedia page claims a 2001 doctorate in three subjects from Ithaca College, this is impossible. Ithaca College, then as now, offers no doctorate degrees except a doctor of physical therapy program, which is certainly not a doctorate in “sports, information communication, and science.” Tsoukalos actually holds a 1998 bachelor's in sports information communication.
I knew none of this in 2002; instead, I knew Tsoukalos only as the Swiss-Greek head of the AAS-RA, and so I started to ask him questions about the ancient astronaut theory. I wish I remember exactly what I asked, but when I checked my notes from that spring, I found that the interview made so little impression at the time that I recorded nothing about it, unusual since I was typically a faithful recorder of scholastic events. I do know that the interview went badly. Since I was at the end of my studies of TV journalism, I had no compunction about using the interview to challenge Tsoukalos on facts and theories, and I recall that the interview grew heated. The smile fell from Tsoukalos’s face, and he repeated several talking points and referred me to ancient astronaut literature. This I remember very clearly: Ending the interview, Tsoukalos reminded me again that he had been on NBC and Sci-Fi and had never once been challenged on a single claim or point. Why, he asked, do you think you, a student, can do that to me?
I smoothed things over, or so I thought, explaining to Tsoukalos that what I was doing was “news” reporting, and what the Sci-Fi Channel did was not news. I told him that I was following Lawrence Spivak’s maxim that a good interview involves learning everything about the interviewee’s subject and then taking the other side. We parted company on polite terms, the near-permanent grin etching itself back across his face. He asked me to give him a copy of the interview tape for his archive, and I told him he could have one after the project was finished.
In the car on the ride back up the hill to campus, Nikolai and Josh congratulated me on the interview. They thought I “got him good” and greatly enjoyed my performance. But that was what it was—a performance. There was already tension between my false face of objective journalism, which needed to pretend that the ancient astronaut theory is the “other side” of the story, and the skeptical critic I was slowly but surely becoming. This day, I got the balance wrong, and I was a skeptic pretending to be a journalist. It wasn’t fair, I suppose, to come to Tsoukalos’s house as a “journalist” and then argue with him as a skeptic. But I was not quite 21 and did not yet understand this; he was 24 and was equally bull-headed and confrontational.
The difference between us became more obvious over the coming weeks and years. The final tape of the story came together badly. In those days Ithaca College still used giant, room-sized machines to splice and edit physical video tape—the digital revolution had not yet filtered down to us. The final copy of the story was grainy and blurry. Some of the cuts went badly, and the audio levels were too high in places, and then too low in others. I had trouble, too, writing a script that “fairly” reported Tsoukalos’s views, as though they were equal to the scientific view, the “other side.” To finish off the humiliation, after playing the story for my professor, the master tape broke. My partners and I wrote it off as a loss, and someone (I can’t remember which of us) threw the tape away rather than waste time reserving an editing booth and manually splicing together a video no one would ever watch again. The piece was never broadcast anywhere; it was merely a class exercise. We needed to start on the next assignment.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten that I had promised Giorgio Tsoukalos a copy of the tape. A few weeks later, he emailed me asking for a copy. I tried to be polite, and I explained to him that due to a mishap the tape had unfortunately broken. I reminded him what I had explained before our interview, that it was a class assignment and was not intended to air. Tsoukalos did not believe me, and after several email exchanges, he more or less accused me of rank dishonesty, and worse; I am sure I responded in kind, sure I would never see him again. Eventually, after weeks of emails, he gave up and realized no tape was forthcoming. But he never forgave me.
In late 2003, after I had graduated from Ithaca College, I started work on what would become my article “Charioteer of the Gods,” and then the book The Cult of Alien Gods. I somehow still felt the weight of my journalism training, and I felt that as part of my research, I needed to speak with ancient astronaut authors to interview them about their beliefs and my thesis. I reached out to Erich von Daniken, the author of Chariots of the Gods, and the wellspring of the modern ancient astronaut theory. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, Giorgio Tsoukalos was now von Daniken’s gatekeeper and official English-language representative.
On July 29, 2003, Tsoukalos wrote back in response to my email to von Daniken. He began by asking if I were surprised that he, not von Daniken, was writing. He reminded me that my bad behavior the year before had serious consequences. He then “answered” my question on von Daniken’s behalf:
“Just the fact that you so desperately attempt to dismantle our theory proves that we are on the right track. Otherwise you would not feel so threatened by our theories! ... I will certainly not forward your questions to Erich, and his secretary has already been informed about your malevolent intentions.”
Tsoukalos went on to “inform” his other friends of my “malevolent” intentions (he always like grandiose words), including David Hatcher Childress, a “lost civilizations scholar” and advocate of Lemuria, Mu, and some mystical claptrap called the “Rama Empire.” In solidarity with Tsoukalos, Childress developed an extreme reaction to me, especially after reading the articles I wrote about his theories on my old website, and later in Cult. We have never met.
Years later, in 2006, Childress still loathed me and told a reporter for The Chicago Reader that I grossly misrepresented him. In a private conversation that I suppose I shouldn’t mention except that it wasn’t technically “off the record,” the reporter explained to me that Childress considered me a nemesis, and I was the first name on his lips when asked about writers who opposed his views. Childress told the reporter that I was wrong because he was not an ancient astronaut theorist and therefore my book was a fraud:
“[M]y whole thing is that this stuff is from this planet. These giant ruins aren’t built by extraterrestrials. I say they were built by humans. Mankind and civilization goes back 50,000 years or more. What else can I assume is inaccurate in this book [Cult of Alien Gods]? This guy just plain doesn’t do his research.”
In the spring of 2010, Childress began appearing weekly on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, along with his friend Giorgio Tsoukalos, as a self-described “ancient astronaut theorist.” He can now be found each Thursday night explaining that “the aliens” are responsible for archaeological and geological wonders. In one episode he explained that the aliens used satellites to beam electricity from Egyptian obelisks across the Pacific to move Easter Island’s statues.
When Childress and Tsoukalos filmed the pilot episode of Ancient Aliens in 2009, the producers from Prometheus Entertainment asked them for skeptics whose work they could show to illustrate attacks on the ancient astronaut theory. Naturally, they thought of me—the only skeptic whose name appears in the segment as broadcast. And so, there I am in the pilot episode of the series, my name clearly visible in large print from my 2004 article “Charioteer of the Gods,” sliding across the screen to ominous music as a wicked, evil skeptic. A friend of my father’s called my father during the broadcast, excited to see my name and wondering why it had been inverted into white type on black paper, with burning scare quotes scrawled across my article of insults hurled against alien theorists—scare quotes I never said. I wasn’t sure whether it was humiliating to be attacked on national television or a badge of honor. I lean now toward the latter.
And so, nearly a decade later, long after a heated, unseen interview in an Ithaca living room, ancient astronaut theorists still hold a grudge against me and probably will for life. But I have Giorgio Tsoukalos to thank for one thing. Though I did not recognize it at the time, my interview with him showed me that I am not cut out for the false equivalences of so much of contemporary journalism. I cannot lie and pretend that falsehoods are equal to facts. For whatever reason, one random college assignment inadvertently determined the path my future would take.
* My estimate of Tsoukalos' age is based on the birth date and age listed for him on his MySpace page and his Wikipedia page. This, of course, would mean he graduated from Ithaca College when he was only 20 years old, unusual though not impossible.