At the end of last week, the History channel announced that it had greenlit a new series about Skinwalker Ranch from Ancient Aliens producer Kevin Burns in which a team of “experts” (whatever that means when dealing with imaginary space poltergeists) will attempt to investigate the paranormal “mysteries” of the ranch in the manner of Curse of Oak Island, another of Burns’s productions. The good news is that using the Oak Island model almost guarantees that the show will never find anything.
The show serves as an informal brand extension for History’s partnership with To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science, whose staff members like Hal Puthoff previously worked with the ranch’s former owner, Robert Bigelow, who was also the driving force behind the government UFO program promoted on History’s Unidentified, the joint venture between History and To the Stars. The show will also serve as an infomercial for the plans of the ranch’s current owner to turn Skinwalker Ranch into a branded paranormal tourism destination and merchandising opportunity.
When Tom DeLonge and Hal Puthoff launched To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science a year and a half ago, I had my doubts that the company’s efforts would amount to much. While TTSA, as it seems to have settled on stylizing itself, has yet to produce any tangible scientific evidence of flying saucers (or space ghosts, or demons, or whatever they’re looking for), they have managed a feat I had not expected them to master: Manipulating the U.S. government into looking like its responding to their disclosure efforts. While nothing tangible has come of it, the marketing push TTSA has undertaken in connection with the Hearst- and Disney-owned History Channel has revealed just how easy it is to use propaganda, public relations, and insinuations to influence government policy.
After TTSA’s efforts resulted in the Navy clarifying its procedures for its pilots to report sightings of unidentified aerial vehicles, it seems that members of Congress took notice of the coverage of TTSA’s activities in the media and became interested. According to an article last week in Politico, three “more” senators, including intelligence committee vice chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) requested and received a classified briefing from the Pentagon about flying saucers.
Three more U.S. senators received a classified Pentagon briefing on Wednesday about a series of reported encounters by the Navy with unidentified aircraft, according to congressional and government officials — part of a growing number of requests from members of key oversight committees.
According to Politico, additional members of Congress have now asked to be briefed, and it seems impossible not to connect this to the hype machine the History Channel has pushed to promote Unidentified, the series the channel produces in conjunction with TTSA.
The Politico story set off a firestorm of media coverage across cable and broadcast news, much of which used branded footage from TTSA or the History Channel to illustrate the story. Gee. What a surprise.
It’s also worth noting that the Politico was written by Brian Bender, who is a talking head on Unidentified. As journalist Keith Kloor noted on Twitter, the unidentified “former Pentagon official” quoted in the article crowing about congressional interest in UFOs could very well be one of the members of To the Stars, and Bender—who has a conflict of interest—omitted any information that would help the reader to understand who this official is and whether this official has a financial or social stake, like Bender does, in promoting UFO “mysteries.”
Pres. Donald Trump told ABC News the previous Friday that he had also received a briefing from the Navy on the same subject, and—as is his wont—unable to keep his mouth shut about classified information, he told ABC (owned by Disney, the co-owner of History) that the meeting was brief and contained no information about space aliens. “But people are saying they’re seeing UFOs. Do I believe it? Not particularly,” he said. Normally, if a government official said something like this, it would be fairly good evidence that the Navy does not believe the sightings have an otherworldly origin, but since Trump is not known for either his discretion or his honesty, it’s not really possible to draw conclusions.
Politico’s Bender tied the requests for briefings to coverage of TTSA’s UFO claims in the New York Times, including their efforts to expose then-Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) funding of the AATIP program at the Pentagon. Not only was TTSA behind the Times stories, but the History Channel has long had what looks from the outside like a sweetheart relationship with the paper, buying lavish ads and receiving glowing coverage of their UFO-themed programs, including Ancient Aliens and Project Blue Book. According to both my own experiences and the statements of the ufologists in all but name who masquerade as UFO reporters for the Times, the editorial team at the paper contains true believers in the UFO phenomenon.
We have a bit of an ouroboros here, with government and the media feeding off of the same speculative ufology/demonology promoted by Hal Puthoff since the 1970s, uncritically repeating TTSA claims and amplifying them through their seeming endorsement. Then, just to make everything even stranger, members of TTSA and people in their orbit like Peter Levenda showed up this weekend at Alien Con, the Ancient Aliens fan conference, to promote Unidentified and to crow about how the government is finally taking UFOs seriously, though the whole thing was their doing in the first place, with Puthoff releasing information about his own speculative work for Robert Bigelow as a subcontractor for the Pentagon and calling it UFO disclosure. Then everyone hobnobbed with Star Trek icon William Shatner, who has been making UFO documentaries since the 1970s and has a new History paranormal series riding the coattails of Ancient Aliens next month, and the revolving door between science fiction and UFO studies made another revolution.
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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