A few days ago, Scientific American ran a lengthy interview with Leslie Kean, the journalist and one-time government lobbyist for UFO disclosure. Kean wrote a credulous book about UFOs several years ago but is today best known for a series of New York Times stories in which she outlined the Pentagon’s UFO research program and followed the work of Tom DeLonge’s To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, a company she had previously discussed in worshipful terms in the Huffington Post. Kean presents herself as an objective journalist investigating extremes, though it is obvious to anyone who has listened to her interviews that she is no neutral observer. Her most recent interview offers more confirmation that many of the interpretations she offers are not fully connected to a dispassionate analysis of facts.
In the interview, Kean denies being a believer in traditional UFOs as alien-piloted spacecraft but maintains that a “phenomenon” exists but we can’t know whether aliens are at the wheel. In the very next breath, she says that the “vehicles” aren’t of earthly origin because “no one on this planet had technology like this.” That’s Leslie Kean in a nutshell: officially neutral until you scratch the surface a bit.
Kean also takes issue with claims that her reporting is biased or slanted, though her refutation did not describe fairness, balance, or neutrality but instead rested on two claims: (a) Times editors scrutinized her work and passed it on for publication and (b) her reporting is popular. The second point is irrelevant and the first is only somewhat relevant, since the editors would be unlikely to have the expertise to identify biases on such an unusual subject, where the omission of key interpretations or facts would not necessarily be obvious, especially when the facts are verifiable.
The Times editors were apparently unconcerned, for example, that Kean served as research director for a lobbying organization she founded that pushed the government for disclosure, a potential source of bias that they would never allow for any other subject. That organization was called the Coalition for Freedom of Information. It was supported by Democratic operative and UFO buff John Podesta. Kean actively worked in the 2000s to lobby Congress and the executive branch for UFO disclosure and to establish an official U.S. government UFO agency. Kean and Podesta sued NASA in 2003 for UFO records with funding from the SciFi Channel (now Syfy, part of NBCUniversal). Times readers weren’t made aware of this in the articles I reviewed.
Nor did they require Kean to disclose that she had a financial relationship with the History Channel, which adapted her UFO book for TV, while she actively covered the UFO investigation of To the Stars, which—coincidence of coincidences!—was undertaken for a History Channel series. Nor did they require the same disclosure when she covered History’s Project Bluebook drama series. History’s parent company was co-owned by NBC, the owners of the SciFi Channel, when SciFi paid her legal expenses back in 2003 and still co-owned it when History paid Kean to turn her book into a documentary in 2011, where she was listed as a producer. NBC sold its interest in History’s parent company in 2012. This is not to imply any wrongdoing on Kean’s part since there is no evidence that the companies’ money influenced her reporting, but the Times would never let their reporters take money from an interested party for any other news topic. In fact, the New York Times own ethical guidelines state that reporters are not allowed to write or edit stories about events or subjects in which they were involved. Kean does not meet that standard. (The Times allows its reporters to appear on TV for pay, but it is less lenient about serving as a producer.) It just feels like UFOs ought to be held to the same standard as other subjects.
The bottom line is that the Times treats its UFO coverage differently. It’s probably meaningful that Kean is not a staff reporter for the Times but produces her coverage separately, with supervision from the Times editors, perhaps accounting for some of the apparently more lenient standards. However, the Times explicitly states that outside contributors are contractually obliged to “take care to avoid conflicts of interests or the appearance of conflict.” The out they have is that Kean’s conflicts go back at least to 2003 and the areas where she has potential conflicts predate her 2017 work for the Times.
At the start of the interview, Kean claims that she only became interested in the paranormal as an adult. However, in describing her childhood experiences with Santa Claus, she inadvertently admits that her way of seeing the world is grounded in a sense of the mystical. She describes bites taken from Christmas cookies left for St. Nick as a connection to the transmundane:
It was solid evidence that something magic, something “supernormal” had actually occurred. This fantastical being who could be everywhere at once had been in my living room and left behind a physical bite mark to prove his existence. The authorities of the day, my parents, confirmed it. I felt momentarily transported, expanded, into a new level of connection to something big and mysterious. That may sound silly, but it was true. When I found out the truth about Santa later, I felt betrayed. Something precious had been taken away. My parents weren’t trustworthy because they lied to me. Maybe at some unconscious level this led me to want to find out what’s real and to prove the so-called authorities wrong. I’m not totally serious, but I suppose it’s possible.
I call your attention to this passage because it encapsulates something that isn’t easy to see otherwise, how someone thinks and reasons. Sure, you might say that she is describing what every kid feels. But it isn’t true. I, for instance, never thought of Santa Claus as a mysterious being linking me to the cosmos and the divine. When I was a small child, he was just a fact of nature, no different than the snow, the stars, or the other people who came and went. His arrival was exciting, but it wasn’t transcendent. It would never have occurred to me to think of Santa Claus in divine terms.
I can’t speak to the psychology of her disappointment at his unreality, but I had already figured out the truth before my parents admitted it, and it was less an abrupt disillusionment than a fairly smooth transition to understanding the difference between physical and symbolic reality.
It’s also worth noting that everything she describes for Santa Claus is also true for UFOs, and she has unwittingly refuted her own investigative technique.
At the end of the interview, Kean—again, a supposedly objective journalist—explains that she strongly suspects that consciousness extends beyond the body to other dimensions, that we are not “biological robots” but spiritual beings operating on multiple planes, and that parapsychology is “brilliant” but hampered by “irrational disrespect” from the fact-based community of science. She says that we must “open” ourselves to the paranormal and those who doubt its reality are closed-minded deniers.
Just imagine the Times hiring a reporter to cover any other subject after espousing extreme claims about it so at odds with reality, under only the faintest cover of agnosticism.
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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