Regular readers will remember George Knapp, the investigative reporter at KLAS-TV in Las Vegas who is closely connected to the story of billionaire Robert Bigelow’s search for interdimensional portals and UFO-driving poltergeists at Skinwalker Ranch in Utah. Knapp has covered UFOs for several decades and is a frequent guest host on Coast to Coast A.M., the paranormal overnight radio show. Knapp recently appeared in Hunt for the Skinwalker, a documentary making use of footage from an abandoned documentary project he started about the ranch decades ago but put on hold at Bigelow’s request. In reviewing the documentary and subsequent radio appearance, I criticized Knapp for agreeing to receive secrets about the Skinwalker Ranch investigation and for keeping those from the public for two decades, and Knapp is hopping mad about it, saying that I don’t know my “ass from a hole in the ground, certainly not about investigative reporting.” The crux of the argument is that Knapp is adhering to his employers’ formal ethics policies, while my concern is for the consequences of the decisions that he has made.
Knapp made his comments in a private online UFO discussion group, which he then allowed UFO Joe’s Joe Murgia to publish on Monday. Murgia identifies me only as “Mr. Debunker” and misrepresents me as a “true believer” in the impossibility of the paranormal. There is a big difference between assuming the impossibility of the paranormal and saying that no one has yet produced convincing evidence for its existence. There is also no good evidence for phlogiston or the virgin war goddess Athena, and to my mind it doesn’t pay to live one’s life assuming that someday there might be.
Knapp began his complaint with a description of me as someone desperate for his attention, sarcastically calling me “a formidable, much-feared debunker…sorry, I mean skeptic…one who is to be avoided at all costs because of his ferocity, and maybe someone who is trying hard to get my attention….” Do I add him to the list of fringe figures who have accused me of being obsessed with them? At this point, the list could form a small phone book.
He went on to say that I was wrong to describe him as having declined to speak with me since no one had told him I had requested it and he does not have a PR firm representing him. For the record, the interview was offered by A. J. Feuerman of The Orchard, the press relations person for the distributor of Hunt for the Skinwalker. This would hardly be the first time a PR agent has promised what the talent didn’t agree to or what he couldn’t deliver. … You still owe me, Lucas Till, Simcha Jacobovici, James Cameron, and a half dozen others! Knapp said that he does not speak to “debunkers” because they are not important and would not help the film to turn a profit: “Debunkers are not exactly the target audience for the film, and I doubt many of them would pay to see it since they already know in advance that the material can’t possibly be credible.” It’s good to know that his interest is largely pecuniary.
But get a load of Knapp’s preemptive defense for why he would never speak to me:
I most certainly did not duck an interview with him based on his massively intimidating reputation but willingly admit that IF I had been asked, the answer almost certainly would have been no…for the simple reason that it would not have been a productive use of my time. He might be very well known among his fellow skeptics, but that is not exactly a mass audience. I do not care what his opinion is about the Skinwalker Ranch, or UFOs, or paranormal topics in general. He is welcome to them. They make no difference to me, and after 30 years chasing these crazy subjects, I would add that they are not exactly original.
I love the presumption he has that I am incapable of asking a fair question—but also the incredible statement from a journalist that he doesn’t care about other points of view, that additional perspectives offer nothing. Worse, that a “mass audience” is an arbiter of value and truth—or, more accurately, money. Knapp exposes here that his goal is not and has never been truth. For him, the argumentum ad populum is that start and end of the investigation.
He then moves on to the typical insult of the prideful who feel their dignity violated—claiming I live in my parents’ basement. Beats me why all of them think that is witty, or accurate, or particularly insulting. Well, in this case maybe: My parents’ basement is unfinished, as is my own.
From the comfort of his home thousands of miles away and many years later, [Mr. Debunker], who does not have a PhD in front of his name, seems to know more about science and the events on the ranch than the PhD’s who were actually there, day and night, for several years. That is one benefit of this brand of skepticism– one does not require actual expertise or hands-on research, or to even leave the house to reach firm conclusions about what is real and what is not. […] Someone can sit in mom’s basement and bang out a fervent screed, ranting about people they don’t know and subjects they know even less, and they have no oversight other than the decision of when to press the Send button.
Note that he expects his audience, from the comfort of their homes, who lack PhDs, to accept the word of his sources unchallenged and without evidence. It is not really the distance or the degree that is the problem, but the disagreement. All those fringe radio hosts and ufologists who celebrate his claims receive no criticism for their lack of expertise. His real concern is with lèse-majesté.
Please, do tell me where one gets a PhD in interdimensional practical jokester immaterial poltergeists. I’m not quite sure what field would cover them. The argument from authority is another fallacy, here trying to inappropriately use the dignity of science to support claims that are not scientific in nature. It’s basically the same as when Dr. Oz recommends some fake supplement. But here’s the rub: I don’t make scientific claims about what did or did not happen. I only evaluated the evidence presented in the film. In that film, the actual people involved said that they found themselves scared by their own feelings about what happened but that they had collected absolutely no scientific evidence of any kind to demonstrate anything paranormal had occurred.
If that is not true, it is the filmmaker’s fault, or the scientists’ fault, for failing to provide their proof. I don’t make claims. All I can do is say whether the evidence presented to me is logical, appears accurate, and supports the conclusions claimed for it.
Knapp has more insults, most of which don’t warrant the dignity of a response, and he derides my blog as merely “some kind of social media hobby or part time Facebook plea for attention or relevance.” I always find that funny because I could do much more for “attention” if my only goal was audience share, but my goal has always been to produce the most useful and original work possible. I find it hard to imagine that Knapp’s work is intended to make a lasting contribution to society.
But let’s get to the heart of the matter. Knapp is deeply offended that I consider it unethical for him to have agreed to accept confidential information from Bigelow and to agree to wait twenty years to share any of it, some of which he likes to hint he still holds back:
The huffy, judgmental statements about journalistic ethics and how things really work in the biz are very clear indications that someone does not know their ass from a hole in the ground, certainly not about investigative reporting. Reporters make agreements with sources every day. They agree to conditions about how and when sensitive information can be released. If you think otherwise, then you have never worked as an investigative reporter or have never tackled a long range, long term project. […] Someone else may have made a different decision, but for me, it was not difficult at all. Anyone who says serious journalists do not make these kinds of agreements every day is simply not familiar with how news works and how information gets released.
Knapp then repeats the insult that I allegedly live in a basement and suggests that his agreement was in the public interest because it ensured that some information would eventually be made public. And he’s right that this is almost certainly in keeping with his employer’s policies and procedures. He compares this to Woodward and Bernstein accepting information from Deep Throat, though this is, of course, ridiculous—Deep Throat intended his information to be made public forthwith and intended his actions to put information into the public domain, not withhold it for selective release. Most journalism ethics texts deal primarily with protecting a confidential source, not protecting secret information.
But I want to explain why I find Knapp’s teasing references to secret information he might someday share to be unethical. I make no claim that this is an official ethical guideline, but it is what my journalism instructors—who were network and cable news producers and staffers from national newspapers and magazines, not just local news folk, taught me. It squares with the information in the latest edition of the Communication Law text that I used in college: “Given the uncertainty of the situation, practical advice for any journalist is to be reluctant to accept confidential information.” There is, however, no consensus among the dozens of journalism ethics books I checked, and there is certainly no official policy, nor does the Society of Professional Journalists refer to it in their code of ethics.
Let’s take a scenario where a journalist agrees to receive confidential information from a government source and promises not to reveal it without permission. The source confirms beyond doubt that A is true, but the journalist cannot share A with the public and there is no other way to confirm A.
Now imagine that another official proudly proclaims that Not A is correct, while our journalist knows for a fact that A is the truth. What happens? The journalist must now either break confidence to serve the public, or allow a known falsehood to appear in the journalist’s coverage of the story unchallenged. Basically, the choice is to break a confidence or lie to the audience.
That choice—to let a lie get published, with all the risk to the public that entails—is the reason that my old journalism professors counseled never to accept any information that I cannot publish.
I don’t know what Knapp’s employer’s policy is, and I don’t care. This isn’t a question of workplace ethics but one of what serves the audience. Knapp has made his case. I have made mine. Neither is of any relevance here because the information is useless. Since we now know (or have been told, anyway) that there is not and never was any scientific evidence of the paranormal at Skinwalker Ranch, everything said about it is nothing but anecdotes, feelings, and other scientifically irrelevant dicta.
Knapp concludes by alleging, again, that I have wronged him in pursuit of attention:
So, I have responded to some of the more arrogant and ignorant assumptions written by someone I do not know. It is likely a mistake on my part to comment at all because it provides a few dribbles of attention to someone who so clearly craves it.
I’m not sure how that works since I could have had quite the History Channel career and a boatload of attention if I had agreed to compromise my sense of ethics for cash.
But let’s ask Knapp this: Why does he routinely fail to disclose to his audience his involvement with Bigelow and Skinwalker Ranch, or his role in inspiring Harry Reid to fund the Pentagon’s UFO tracking program when he reports on them? Surely such facts are relevant to judging whether to trust Knapp about all this secret information he’s agreed to hide for decades at a time.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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