I Spoke with the New York Times Reporter Who Broke the Pentagon UFO Program Story. It Wasn't What I Expected.
As many regular readers know, I recently discovered that some of the evidence the Hal Puthoff of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science used to support the claim that metal with supposedly unearthly composition and properties from flying saucers is in their possession has been previously studied and determined to be earthly, most likely industrial waste. After hearing ufologist Richard Dolan speculate idly about the New York Times’ coverage of the such topics, I thought that the New York Times, which broke the original story credulously mentioning these metals, should know about this in the name of accuracy and integrity. Over the past two days, I have been in conversation with Ralph Blumenthal, who co-wrote the December 16, 2017 story revealing the existence of the Pentagon’s UFO program and the claim of Luis Elizondo, the program’s onetime head who joined Tom DeLonge’s To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, that billionaire aerospace contractor and ufology buff Robert Bigelow was examining unknown metals, described as being metal recovered from the ships of space aliens. It has been strange.
Just to clarify, here is how Blumenthal and his coauthors described the metamaterials: “Under Mr. Bigelow’s direction, 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.” Note that Bigelow, not the Pentagon, was identified as the possessor of the metal. Note, too, that the source of the claim is Elizondo and other contractors, who are, of course, per published reports, the employees of Bigelow Aerospace and the people Bigelow subcontracted. One of the Bigelow subcontractors was Hal Puthoff, who admitted to being a Bigelow subcontractor on the Pentagon UFO project. And, surprise: Puthoff was another named source in the article. The Times described him as a contractor but did not identify his connection to Bigelow.
I hesitated about whether to write this blog post at all. I have no interest in making enemies or angering people unnecessarily, but on the other hand, being polite has not really achieved any of my intended goals. I would normally not share what was discussed by email, and I honestly had no intention of talking about it, but my conversation with Blumenthal was not off the record, and the public good seems to require that I share the fact that Blumenthal was unimpressed with the previously published scientific report that some of the supposed metamaterials are terrestrial in origin and likely industrial waste. (He said he was already familiar with the material, which was surprising to me, given his published and broadcasted words; journalists are supposed to report opposing perspectives.) He also declined to address the issue of unpublicized ties between To the Stars, the Pentagon program, and Robert Bigelow, or To the Stars and its financial dealings. He said he was familiar with me and my work and suggested that my analysis was a “conspiracy” theory and that it was “potentially libelous.” There really is little more to say here, and you can draw your own conclusions. I will instead discuss the public record surrounding Blumenthal and his writing partner Leslie Kean’s Times report.
This is such a weird situation and it leaves me quite uncomfortable. I don’t generally like to be in the position of advocate, though here I am acting as an advocate for the truth, whatever that happens to be. Alien metamaterials are certainly not my usual area of interest, and if it weren’t for ancient astronaut theorist Jacques Vallée’s involvement, I doubt I would have paid the subject any mind. Nevertheless, I ended up arguing with an award-winning New York Times journalist about whether there is a need for verifiable evidence that space aliens’ jalopies dropped spare parts while joyriding before asserting that such parts exist. This is not anything I ever imagined happening, much less for me to be cast as a conspiracy theorist.
I’ll be honest: This breaks my heart. I went to journalism school, and I once dreamed of reporting for a major news organization like the New York Times. I could not conceive of reporting such a major assertion as the existence of material manufactured on another world without evidence, and yet here we are: My uncompromising belief in the need for evidence has run headlong into a gray area of journalism. Blumenthal technically only reported that Elizondo and the Bigelow people had said that Bigelow’s subcontracted group had examined these metals; on MSNBC he added that unnamed “scientists” didn’t know what to make of them. He stands by the accuracy of those statements, and legalistically, Blumenthal is correct. Elizondo said those things. But that’s a weaselly way around evidence, and I am concerned that Blumenthal and Kean are too close to the story.
I wasn’t planning, actually, to devote today’s blog post to this subject, but the more I thought about it, the angrier I became, especially at Kean’s fairly clear bias in covering her subject. Her conflicts of interest as UFO believer and a political advocate for UFO research (she is the cofounder of a UFO disclosure advocacy organization called the Coalition for Freedom of Information and sued NASA for UFO information) ought to have disqualified her from reporting this story for the Times. She is not a neutral or objective journalist.
Kean is the author of puff pieces about how To the Stars engages in “world-changing” activity and did a podcast interview last month explaining that she and Blumenthal, who retired from the Times in 2009, worked closely with Elizondo for months (“hours, and hours, and hours,” Kean said) and pitched the story to the Times from outside the paper. The Times assigned a staff reporter to work with them to ensure the story adhered to Times standards. I assume these standards are why the published story contains many more qualifiers than Blumenthal and Kean use in their interviews.
I listened to her interview on The Gimerica Show, and it is eminently clear that Kean, who wrote a largely uncritical book about the military and UFOs a few years ago, is deeply invested in the UFO movement and what advocates might describe as “disclosure”—though Kean denies understanding what ufologists mean by the term. (This is just silly—she clearly knows what it means.) She had difficulty answering even simple questions about what exactly Luis Elizondo revealed that was so important, given that she claimed that none of the information was classified. Why, fellow guest Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko asked, if this is so important to the government, was Elizondo not charged like so many others who leaked information? Well, Kean said, it wasn’t classified, but they were “furious” that the unclassified program, which openly advertised for contractors, had somehow become public. It doesn’t add up, to be frank, and it bothers me that Elizondo began talking to Kean and Blumenthal at the same time he defected from the Pentagon to Tom DeLonge’s To the Stars, an aspect of the story that went unquestioned in the Times.
Kean stated that Elizondo only provided “the parts” of the Pentagon program that “aren’t” classified. Since Elizondo is Times’ stated source for the claim for alien metamaterials, this therefore means that the alien metamaterials are not classified. And yet no reports or information on them are available. That’s because, as we know from statements made by employees of To the Stars, that they are not actually part of the Pentagon program, but Bigelow’s, and now To the Stars’. The Times report even stated that the metamaterials were in Bigelow’s possession.
Kean said that she “didn’t understand” questions about Elizondo’s motives, including his media tour at the behest of his new employer, To the Stars. “Yes, he was coached,” she said about his later media appearances, but she denied that any of this was relevant to his credibility vis-à-vis space aliens. In fact, it is quite clear that Kean is enraptured of her subject, whom she refers to familiarly as “Lou,” praising Elizondo and calling his October 2017 resignation letter—sent when he had secured a job with DeLonge, though so far as I know never made public—“historic” because it criticized the Pentagon. “That letter, to me, is history,” Kean said, “because it was written to the Secretary of Defense […] speaking truth.” (According to John Greenwald, Jr. of the Black Vault, the Pentagon responded to a FOIA request for this letter by stating no such record exists.)
Perhaps this makes me a conspiracy theorist, but I’d think that a person’s financial incentives—that he is being paid to promote alien metamaterials and other extremist claims to help raise funds for the company that employs him—are relevant to judging whether to take his word for it. Blumenthal and Kean dutifully mentioned To the Stars exactly once in their report, but cast the venture as benevolently raising money for UFO research. This is, according to To the Stars itself, untrue.
You will, of course, recall that last year Tom DeLonge launched To the Stars with a splashy news conference and a public stock offering. I helped break the news at the time that DeLonge’s company was structured with its primary financial obligation to pay him massive royalties and loan repayments, totaling more than $100,000 in royalties and even more in loan repayments each year. According to SEC filings, much of the money raised by the stock offering would essentially go to paying back DeLonge and paying its executives’ salaries until and unless the venture miniscule generated significant profits. It is an open question how the company is paying for the metamaterials research they allege that they are performing. According to DeLonge himself, the company intends to use what money it has to create movies, books and a TV series as its primary product, with supposed flight technology that seemingly defies the laws of physics as a secondary focus. UFO research is the come-on that brings in the cash, but the company has announced no original UFO research plans, only efforts to publicize material from the Pentagon program and Bigelow Aerospace. To wit, DeLonge himself stated that he intends to use money from investors to “make these films, build the machine, and continue to fly around the world and brief Gov Representatives.” (Note that DeLonge claims to be the party doing the briefing, not receiving information.)
Kean suggests that she is privy to “behind the scenes” developments that are “positive” but that she can’t share for fear of ruining them. This is not what journalists do. When I was in school, my professors—who worked for the major broadcasters and newspapers—emphasized that you don’t accept information that can’t be reported in some way. At best, it means that you lie to your readers, and at worst it puts you in a compromising position with your sources.
Kean described herself as deeply involved in ufology and immersed in its subculture and its literature. “We all know a lot about UFOs,” Kean said of herself and the Grimerica team, “so to us it just seems obvious.” She mentioned that the general public is not familiar with ufology books or popular ufologists.
It’s troubling to hear Kean talk about what she thinks To the Stars and the Pentagon are working sub rosa to do, and I can’t help but think that she is a true believer, not a neutral reporter. Kean also discussed her belief in telepathy (tied to her most recent book, about the afterlife), so we aren’t talking about a terribly skeptical person. Indeed, when she tried to explain her belief that in one case a medium contacted a spirit that passed along obscure business information from Denmark, she weirdly alleged that “skeptics” would argue that the psychic actually remote viewed the business records and translated them from Danish. I don’t think she understands skepticism at all, or else has a grossly unscientific view of remote viewing. Oh, wait… she has worked closely with Hal Puthoff, the king of remote viewing.
Not long after her interview, Newsweek broke the story that Bigelow Aerospace used the UFO program to study poltergeists and psychic phenomena because its members believed that UFOs distort human perceptions and are responsible for the paranormal. I am sorry, but I do not trust the Bigelow people to tell me the truth without a ton more evidence than the word of people who are on the fringes of the fringe.
“So far, we don’t have the material we need to do another story and to satisfy the editors at the New York Times,” Kean said about her UFO research.
I think that the Times might do well to reconsider future story pitches from Kean, at least those on subjects where she has all but declared herself an advocate rather than an observer.
6/23/2018 10:15:51 am
"... and the public good seems to require that I share the fact..."
6/23/2018 12:27:13 pm
1. Blumenthal was unimpressed with the previously published scientific report that some of the supposed metamaterials are terrestrial in origin and likely industrial waste.
6/23/2018 03:42:29 pm
Oh, I was thinking big picture. Rather than getting bogged down with the particulars, I instead marveled at the pretension; and of course joined in.
6/23/2018 12:17:18 pm
Your assertion that you don’t advocate for the truth is accurate. Kudos.
6/23/2018 01:02:53 pm
Hal, do you have to make? When was the last time you made?
6/23/2018 08:17:42 pm
6/23/2018 08:22:03 pm
Bev: keep in mind that this is a hate blog.
6/24/2018 01:23:26 pm
Sounds like someone needs some NUM-NUMS!!!
6/23/2018 01:16:41 pm
6/23/2018 01:50:48 pm
Don't know if that would help as they say you can't believe a word in the N.Y. Times not even and or the.....
6/23/2018 01:21:19 pm
One way to not play To the Stars game would be to stop calling the piece of slag a metamaterial. While the term is a little fuzzy, something really can't be considered a metamaterial unless it has some manufactured attribute that makes it useful in some way. I don't think I've seen anybody claim the piece of slag has any obvious use, so at best it could a fragment of unknown manufacture. And as Jason points out, it's probably not even *that* unknown.
6/23/2018 01:29:26 pm
I've read this through twice and still don't understand what's going on. Would anyone care to summarise for the hard of thinking?
6/23/2018 01:40:37 pm
6/23/2018 01:41:00 pm
Short form: I though I'd share with the NYT reporters some information relevant to evaluating their claim that "alien" metal is being studied. I assumed Blumenthal would say some polite words and do nothing. Instead he suggested that questioning Puthoff and To the Stars was libel and a conspiracy theory. I found this shocking, so I looked into it more and found that the Times reporters are more involved in the UFO movement than they let on. It's generally frowned upon to have an advocate covering a story because of the potential for bias.
6/23/2018 03:24:48 pm
"It's generally frowned upon to have an advocate covering a story because of the potential for bias."
6/23/2018 03:40:05 pm
Sir Humphrey: The only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers' prejudices.
6/23/2018 04:42:00 pm
6/23/2018 02:05:39 pm
Jason, I am old enough to remember when the news was reported and written about by actual news reporters and writers who covered stories and attempted to report without bias. They would report the facts and before they were put out for broadcast or appeared in print the facts were verified, sometimes more than once. Now, what news is reported in often not news but opinion. I know here in friendly Salt Lake City, the local news is often terrible. The local news outlets have hired reporters more for their looks and television presence than for any ability to report, without bias, the stories they cover. Most of what they cover, when not interrupted twenty seven times an hour by commercials, are puff pieces. It seems to me that the only truly informative televised news outlet is actually PBS, who attempts to be as accurate as possible and to do so with as little bias as possible.
6/23/2018 03:20:43 pm
I admit to not having read the original NYT article until now, but it sounds more like a feature article written by non-NYT employees than a news story, although Helene Cooper who seems to be a NYT Pentagon correspondent is first in the byline. Perhaps the standards are different in that case? Sounds like a potential job for the ombudsman if the NYT has one.
6/23/2018 05:09:19 pm
6/23/2018 02:21:28 pm
"He said he was already familiar with the material, which was surprising to me, given his published and broadcasted words"
An Anonymous Nerd
6/23/2018 11:17:27 pm
Thank you for putting Judas Priest songs in my head. (Or is your name just a bizarre coincidence?)
6/24/2018 10:48:23 am
Hahahaha. Finally, somebody gets it.
6/23/2018 07:02:27 pm
So what is the next step in getting the full story out there? If the reporter at the NYT doesn’t care what about his editor? What about their competition? Surely some other news organization would want to make the NYT look bad? 60 Minutes did a story on Bigelow, would ABC or NBC be interested in showing how they were duped?
6/23/2018 08:33:22 pm
While I'm not surprised by the exchange, at least you can say you tried. It is interesting the "potentially libelous" part was introduced. It's not libel if what you're reporting is in the public record. Blumenthal knows this, of course.
6/23/2018 09:31:13 pm
Ralph Blumenthal has long been a UFO believer. He wrote this largely uncritical piece in 2013 about the late John Mack and other well-known 'UFO abductionists.' And of course Leslie Kean is certainly no disinterested observer. The New York Times piece on AATIP and TTSA may masquerade as objective journalism, but it is clearly a puff piece intended to promote Tom DeLonge's venture.
6/23/2018 11:04:08 pm
An Anonymous Nerd
6/23/2018 11:22:36 pm
I hate the terms "traditional media" or "mainstream media." So to refer to that concept in this post, I'll just use a ______.
6/24/2018 08:45:56 am
Reporters shouldn't accept information that they can't publish?
An Anonymous Nerd
6/24/2018 11:10:05 am
Here's the whole quote:
6/24/2018 12:21:42 pm
That's exactly right. Background information can be reported, but the source asks not to be identified. What you don't accept is information that you're told can never be shared because it means that you have to lie to your readers, or intentionally falsify a story. It's a world of trouble.
An Anonymous Nerd
6/24/2018 11:13:39 am
The more I think about it, the more I think that if this information is potentially libelous, then either Alex Jones should be in a world of trouble, or our libel laws exclusively are designed to favor folks with super high ratings and good funding.
6/24/2018 05:46:01 pm
It is weird that a seasoned Times reporter would 'threaten libel
6/24/2018 07:03:59 pm
In different periods of history the human mind works in different ways. Our ancestors believed in angels. Today we hear little about angels, instead we are pre-occupied with extra-terrestrials. Now why has there been that change? Answer - angels fitted into the old world-view and met people's needs. People wanted to know that God was not indifferent or remote - but through his servants, his ministers, guarded and guided them. Today we have a scientific world-view and rather different problems. We need to feel that we are not alone in the universe. So our stories about extra-terrestrials are expressions about our religious needs. We've come to see all such ideas as expressions of the religious imagination shaped by the pre-occupations of the time.
6/25/2018 03:54:34 pm
You would be amazed at how many young people in my classes strongly believe in angels and the whole religious shebang that comes with it. I do agree that there is a lot of stuff going on among people who need something to fill the gap left by religiosity declining in the face of science. But there are enough believers still around that we are faced with a real mixed bag of belief systems ranging from fundamentalist Christianity to healing crystals or Aliens, sometimes with some pretty wild combinations of at least two of the three..
Okay, there's a lot to unpack here. I'm genuinely all for skeptical inquiry into this subject and particularly all of the vagueness around TTSA. But I can't help but feel that this author is driving his own personal ideology here, and seems to be very closed off to anything that deviates from that.
6/25/2018 12:30:57 am
What "information" are you talking about? You sound like an idiot. Are you an idiot, Focker?
6/25/2018 03:39:23 pm
Julian, volume and credibility are not the same thing. If something "seems unscientific," its credibility is necessarily low. If someone is writing this kind of thing and trying to sound scientific while using unscientific methods, then they are, quite simply, not skeptical on the subject. And it's not so much that there is something "wrong" with not being a skeptic, as that knowing that she is not a skeptic on the subject DOES impact how reliable an article published in the New York Times as written in part by her is. Basically, it's something the NYT article should have included, much like including whether a political statement was made by the candidate themself or whether it was reported to have been said by someone who claims to have been in a meeting with them.
6/25/2018 01:56:12 pm
HAPPY UFO DAY !
6/25/2018 09:22:35 pm
U all do realize this is the same as the trump dossier right? False claim verified by “independent” sources reported by “independent” media
Godric G. Glas
6/26/2018 01:43:54 am
Keep going, Jason.
G. G. Glas.
6/26/2018 01:48:47 am
this sounds a bit like those claiming to have found Noah's ark in Turkey. Just give me a ton of money, some of it coming from American fundamentalist universities, and I'll show it to you. I once promised to show one of these groups information about a fraudulent archaeological claim on condition that they publish the information, they declined the offer.
7/1/2018 12:47:20 pm
I'm shocked that someone would decline to shoulder your publication costs. What kind of a world are we living in? Those are garbage people! Imagine, not being will to shoulder your publication costs!
7/1/2018 07:58:11 pm
Metabunk.org debunked the other reports of so-called alien craft sightings, showing that they were insects and normal aircraft.
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