The New York Times Runs Major Feature on "Ancient Aliens," Casts Ancient Astronaut Theorists as Friendly, Lovable Rogues Searching for God
The New York Times ran a major feature online on Saturday which will appear in print in the July 22 Sunday print edition covering Alien Con and the Ancient Aliens television show. While the article by Steven Kurutz pays lip service to the problems with the ancient astronaut theory, the overall thrust of the article is a celebration of the community that has formed around the Ancient Aliens television show. This was especially disappointing to me because Kurutz interviewed me at length several weeks ago for the piece, and he had told me that he planned to use my interview in the article to discuss the dark side of the ancient astronaut theory, including its ties to racist ideas and white nationalism, as well as the racist, anti-Semitic, and paranoid statements made by the show’s talking heads, including Erich von Däniken (who called Blacks a “failed” experiment), David Wilcock (who blamed the Jews for trying to kill him), and the late Jim Marrs (who alleged that the Jews and Obama were working together to destroy America).
I did not make it into the piece, nor did any of the research material he asked me to provide about Ancient Aliens and the ancient astronaut theory. I wondered at first if I was cut from because I criticized the Times’ coverage of the Pentagon UFO program and To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences. I had identified conflicts of interest with article reporter Leslie Kean, a true believer and professional UFO advocate, as well as her coauthor, former Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal, who accused me of attempted libel and conspiracy theories. Kurutz emailed me late this evening to say that my interview was cut during editing, which shrank the article by 800 words. The editors, for whatever reason, dropped material about the dark side of the ancient astronaut theory. The Times, it seems, has a soft spot for space aliens and the billionaires and corporations who make money selling stories of them to the public.
To that end, Kurutz (or, rather, the article as it turned out after the Times edited it) chose not to engage much with the ancient astronaut theory as an idea except to say it is essentially a faith beyond the need for evidence and instead looked at it as a pop cultural phenomenon. As a result, he soft-pedaled the dark side of conspiracy theories, dismissed critics as “naysayers,” and presented ancient astronaut believers as a bunch of loveable rogues. Consider, for example, the nearly worshipful way he describes Giorgio Tsoukalos: “He was dressed as he would be all weekend, in the khaki shirt and pants and sturdy leather boots of a field archaeologist, though in the strict academic sense, he has no such accreditation.” No, not the “strict academic sense”—in any sense. He holds a bachelor’s degree in sports information. He has never written a book, nor conducted any original research. (His ideas come from von Däniken, who provides them wholesale.) “It is not fancy credentials but the way he expresses gut beliefs that makes him compelling to viewers; that, and his hair.” Later, Kurutz says—on his own authority—that it is “unfair” to criticize Tsoukalos’s lack of credentials because “M.I.T. isn’t giving out Ph.D.s in ancient astronaut theory.”
It gets worse, if that is possible, when Kurutz describes David Childress. “David Hatcher Childress, who gets nearly as much screen time as Mr. Tsoukalos, is a real-life Indiana Jones who climbs megalithic ruins in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley equipped with a brown felt hat and a notebook.” The only thing Childress has in common with Indiana Jones is that both play-act at being archaeologists on screen and have no respect for the cultures they ravage like bulls in a china shop. The description of Childress is taken nearly verbatim from Childress’s own press materials, which appear on the back of all his books.
No mention is made of Ancient Aliens talking heads who have caused controversy. Sean David Morton was tried for an elaborate tax fraud scheme. David Wilcock appeared on Russian television to denounce America. Several have made racist or anti-Semitic statements.
Kurutz declined to criticize the History Channel for airing anti-historical garbage—indeed the network’s role in promoting conspiracy theories is conveniently expunged—but he puts in some lucrative plugs for Berkeley Books’ upcoming rerelease of Chariots of the Gods, the forthcoming Baltimore edition of Alien Con, and other profit-making ventures.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. The most important passage in the article is one that echoes what I have said as recently as yesterday, that Ancient Aliens is actually a show about Christian salvation history masquerading as a science program. Here is Kurutz describing, in loving detail, Ancient Aliens executive producer Kevin Burns’s rationale for the show’s existence:
The invocation of religion is deliberate. In Mr. Burns’s view, “Ancient Aliens” succeeds because it explores spirituality and the mystery of life in an increasingly secular, data-driven culture. Like religion, it offers seekers an origin story.
Tellingly, Kurutz lets that stand unchallenged. What does it say that our society and the New York Times are happy to accept the notion that awe and wonder are to be found in fakery and fraud because reality is simply too awful to contemplate undistorted by fantasy? When Kurutz interviews Ken Feder about the ancient astronaut theory, he is uninterested in the actual problems with the idea, or its dark side; instead, Kurutz focuses on the idea that “Mr. Feder wasn’t rooting against the ancient astronaut theorists finding hard proof.”
Some of the incidental details are indescribably sad. Kurutz describes paranoiacs who believe that Ancient Aliens is being censored and that there are deeper revelations they can’t reveal. He quotes a woman who tells the ancient astronaut theorists that she is “indoctrinating” her kindergartener in the ancient astronaut theory so he won’t believe what the schools will try to teach him. He watches as an old woman collapses in tears upon meeting Tsoukalos, as though his touch were the healing hand of a medieval monarch. A disturbed audience member demanded to know why Ancient Aliens doesn’t try to attack “physics and math.”
To his credit, Kurutz gives Feder the last word, to remind readers that human beings are more amazing and impressive than imaginary ancient astronauts might ever be.
But the article was a huge missed opportunity, and it continues a disturbing trend of normalizing extreme and damaging points of view by casting them as legitimate and justified, rather than merely understandable. Understanding shouldn’t equate to endorsement, nor should America’s greatest newspaper use false equivalency and superficial balance to imply that those who profit handsomely from peddling dangerous lies are simply smiling, friendly cartoons.
Note: Due to this special Saturday blog post, there will be no new blog post on Tuesday.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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