NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

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The belief that mankind is not alone in the sentient universe is nothing new. Ancient pantheons of cosmic gods and fairy-tale entities of the forest captured the imaginations of human societies long before our modern obsession with flying saucers and alien abductions. Beginning in 1947 with reports of a crashed spaceship in Roswell, New Mexico, the public curiosity about extraterrestrial visitors to our planet has grown into a global phenomenon. For the past 60 years, UFOs have invaded our culture through the speculation of conspiracy theorists and the fantasies of Hollywood cinema. Yet under the rationalist constructs of a post-Enlightenment world, an avowed belief in alien life is generally regarded with snide contempt. Such things are the stuff of idle entertainment, goes the dominant view, and do not warrant serious discussion.

This view, however, is suddenly changing.

On the evening of January 8, 2008, dozens of people observed a mysterious phenomenon in the skies above the small farming community of Stephenville, Texas. Eyewitnesses throughout the town and its suburbs saw impossibly bright lights of red, yellow, blue, and brilliant white that glowed, danced and flashed before rocketing away at incredible speeds. The lights spanned huge distances, and they seemed to originate from a curiously low altitude for an aircraft. The entire event was eerily silent. A few recall observing military jets resembling F-16s trailing after them, into the darkness.

Two days later, after the Stephenville Empire-Tribune ran a front page story with the headline “Possible UFO sighting”, the otherworldly lightshow was the talk of the town. Reporter Angelia Joiner spoke with four area residents who witnessed something supremely odd while taking in a tranquil sunset over suburban Selden. As dusk closed in, the friends were startled to notice an array of intensely bright flashing lights in the distance, several thousand feet in the air. Steve Allen, a seasoned pilot, offers a detailed account of the events:

“The ship wasn't really visible and was totally silent, but the lights spanned about a mile long and a half mile wide…. The lights went from corner to corner. It was directly above Highway 67 traveling towards Stephenville at a high rate of speed – about 3,000 miles per hour is what I would estimate.”

As they stared on in disbelief, the lights suddenly shifted configuration from one long horizontal row to two vertical groups. “Then they turned into dirty burning flames,” Allen continues. “The flames were not blue. They were white in color. About two seconds later it disappeared completely.”

As the friends puzzled over what they had just seen, the lights reappeared ten minutes later moving across the sky to the east, this time pursued by a pair of military jets. Bewildered by the incident, they got in touch with the town paper to share their story. Before long, other Stephenville area residents began to come forward with their own reports of inexplicable lights in the sky that same evening. Joiner followed up the next day with an article titled “Mysterious sightings keep locals guessing”, quoting four additional eyewitnesses including a county constable and an ex-Air Force serviceman.

Alongside striking similarities in their descriptions of extremely fast-moving, intensely bright lights, the humbled observers share a sense that whatever was behind this luminous phenomenon defies simple explanations.

“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” says Dublin Constable Lee Roy Gaitan. “It started moving towards Stephenville and moving so fast I had trouble following it with my binoculars. It covered a big area.”

Mike Odom of Selden says: “It was something not natural; it was moving way too fast.”

“There were two very bright red lights traveling in formation,” recalls James Hughes. “They were so intensely bright that I realized they must be at a low altitude. But, there was no noise…. It was unusual.”

Allen, the pilot who made the initial report, is especially confident in his appraisal, insisting, "It was positively, absolutely nothing from these parts." Yet he understands the apprehension such claims stir up in the conservative, god-fearing denizens of Stephenville. “People wonder what in the world it is, because this is the Bible Belt and everyone is afraid it’s the end of times.”

To address these concerns, Joiner sought out an official statement from the military in her January 13 article, “All eyes on the skies”. Major Karl Lewis of the Naval Air Joint Reserve Base in nearby Fort Worth suggests “sun reflection of an aircraft traveling at high altitude” or unusual weather conditions as possible culprits for the bizarre spectacle over Stephenville. But Lewis was at a loss to explain the peculiar silence and wind stillness surrounding the low-flying aerial phenomena. By all accounts of the size, elevation, and velocity of the “craft” in these sightings, he figures there should be an “approximate path of four miles wide of damage” left behind, similar to the destruction in the wake of a tornado.

As friends and neighbors swapped incredible stories and wild speculation, another highly improbable thing happened. The Associated Press picked up the story of a mass UFO sighting in the sleepy Texas community, and within days it was featured on every major television network in the country. The small-town mystery had made big-time news. Correspondents arrived instantly on the scene seeking interviews with the most prominent eyewitnesses and shooting field reports on Stephenville’s main drag. An organization called the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) sent word that they were headed to Stephenville to screen witnesses and investigate the matter, stoking the media frenzy. Local businesses welcomed UFOs in their storefront marquees, and entrepreneurs printed up commemorative T-shirts.

While the AP report brought the strange nighttime lights over Stephenville to the world’s attention, it also broke news of another eyewitness account – a dramatic daylight sighting from a week earlier. The details are astounding. Ricky Sorrells, a machinist living in nearby Dublin, Texas, was out hunting on his property on New Year’s Day when he noticed the entire sky was eclipsed by a massive grey object. In an interview with Earthfiles’ Linda Moulton Howe, Sorrrells describes using his rifle’s magnifying scope to scan the bottom of the object hovering above the treetops, extending as far as he could see. Through the scope he closely examined its flat surface, which was covered with deep, cone-shaped indentions arranged in a grid pattern and spaced about 40 feet apart. The enormous object was completely silent.

While inspecting the craft, Sorrells was fortunate enough to have his eyes open to see it suddenly zip away with an incredible speed, into the sky at a forty-five degree angle, its lower surface remaining flat with the horizon. “It took off so fast that, I guarantee you, if I’d have blinked, I’d have missed it,” he says. “I would have thought it had just vanished.”

Shortly after the craft disappeared, four helicopters passed by, returning at intervals as if running a search pattern. Sorrells spied the massive object on two more occasions over the next ten days, both times from a much greater distance yet still near enough to make out the indentions on its underbelly. He also reports military jets frequently buzzing over his property since the initial sighting, and in a pair of February follow-ups from the Empire-Tribune, Sorrells complains of continued, direct harassment by Air Force personnel, aircraft, and mysterious intruders.

Combined with the 30 or so nighttime sightings on January 8, Sorrells’ amazing account was enough to convince MUFON investigators that something momentous had occurred. The credibility of many of the eyewitnesses substantiated their testimony, and accounts from highly respected local figures like Constable Gaitan received serious attention. CNN, Fox, and NPR produced multiple segments on the Texas sightings, with most reports simply stating the peculiar facts of the case without dismissive commentary. The oft-ridiculed topic of UFOs was now being frankly addressed in the most mainstream media outlets. ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s The Today Show debated the probability of extraterrestrial visitors over mugs of coffee (Matt Lauer and Al Roker are believers), and Larry King Live devoted an entire hour-long program to discuss Stephenville’s UFO alongside famous sightings of years past. In one truly surprising moment, a Fox News anchor laid out a case for a bona fide alien presence in our skies.

The military’s official response came two weeks later in a January 23 statement declaring that the extraordinary apparition seen by dozens was, in fact, a visual illusion caused by ten F-16s flying a training mission in the area. This admission contradicts an earlier, unofficial statement from Major Lewis that denied any such activity over Stephenville. The news release chalks up the discrepancy to an “internal communications” error at the Naval Air Reserve base in Fort Worth. Lewis himself served as spokesman to the press, offering the new information as an obvious explanation for the mysterious event. This is, of course, the same officer who only weeks before pondered right along with eyewitnesses how any aircraft could fly so low and so fast without unleashing sonic explosions and gale force winds.

Along with this revised statement from the military came a clear shift in tone from the mainstream press. CNN’s latest report shrugs off all earlier uncertainties with a brusque headline: “UFOs? Nope. They were fighter jets, Air Force says”. The reasoned weighing of fantastic evidence against implausible explanations was gone, trumped by the open-and-shut verdict of officialdom. (It is interesting to note that NPR's follow-up is far more suspicious of the military's confession.) A careful observer might recognize this journalistic about-face as part of the same backpedaling campaign that Major Lewis was now running. Somewhere on high a lever had been pulled, and the damage controllers had wrested back the reins. But it was too late: the genie screamed out of the bottle in those brief but indelible moments when network newsmen uttered the letters “U-F-O” with nary a smirk on their lips. So why allow the story any credibility in the first place, or even report it at all? What lies behind the sudden mainstream interest in this phenomenon?

The extensive coverage in Stephenville recalls another recent UFO event that received significant media attention – the November 7, 2006 sighting of a grey, oval-shaped object above O’Hare International Airport, witnessed by a dozen or so commercial pilots and technicians. When John Hilkevitch of the Chicago Tribune broke the story in early January 2007, it shook newswires across the globe until the FAA dismissed the event as a “weather phenomenon.” (Initial statements from the FAA denied any abnormal occurrence whatsoever; only after Hilkevitch filed a Freedom of Information Act request did the agency blame it on the weather.) Television, print, and radio news outlets worldwide reported the Chicago story – an anomalous event in itself.

Here we had credible testimony from aviation professionals and convincing evidence of a federal cover-up to boot. Yet strangely, Stephenville’s comparatively unqualified sightings dwarfed the O’Hare incident in terms of media buzz, with the Texas affair enjoying on-location reports and network morning show cachet. Within a year’s time, two major UFO stories had somehow slipped through the carefully guarded filters of mainstream channels to be injected directly into the public consciousness. To those who have followed such suppressed information for decades via alternative sources, this increasing aboveground push is a very curious trend.

UFO researchers have long bemoaned the disregard of “established” journalists towards unidentified flying objects. In an article from 2002 titled “Getting Inside Your Head: Media, Mind Control, and the Marginalization of UFOs”, ufologist Richard Dolan recounts a little-reported incident involving two F-16s pursuing an unidentified object in restricted airspace over Washington, D.C. The story broke via calls made by eyewitnesses to a local radio station; it appeared briefly in Washington-area Fox and CNN television broadcasts and saw a modest write-up in The Washington Post. After a few other papers reprinted the Post article, the story quietly died. Yet had a wire service like Reuters or the Associated Press picked it up, Dolan asserts, the dramatic UFO sighting would have been serious business. He identifies these newsgathering agencies as “media choke points” where information deemed sensitive or incendiary can be swiftly squashed by the controlling interests at the helm. “It’s a reasonable conclusion that someone is trying to influence your reality,” he maintains.

In his 2004 essay “Understanding UFOs and the Media: Puncturing a Myth”, Dolan further argues that the centralized control of the news by a corporate elite (“Big Media”) prohibits straight-faced reporting on anomalous phenomena. Top-tier channels like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal cater to a valued “management class” whose constituents won’t tolerate such paradigm-shattering beliefs. In Dolan’s view, these topics have been purposely relegated to the plebes and their tabloids. “When we hear Tom Brokaw talking seriously about UFOs as ‘real,’ then we’ll all know something is afoot,” he supposes. “Until then, don’t hold your breath waiting for disclosure.”

One wonders if Richard Dolan is breathing easy these days. It seems the stranglehold on UFO reports has loosened considerably within the past year, as the Associated Press quickly scooped both the O’Hare and Stephenville incidents. And to be sure, such talk isn’t just for conspiracy theorists anymore; network anchors and politicians alike have outed themselves as “believers” in recent months. Dennis Kucinich’s public admission to a UFO sighting during a Democratic debate last October grabbed headlines, and in his bid for the Blue Party ticket, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson called for an end to government secrecy surrounding the infamous Roswell incident.

Just last March, Republican and former Arizona Governor Fife Symington came forward with his own dramatic eyewitness account of the 1997 Phoenix Lights – a mysterious event seen by hundreds of Arizonians during his tenure, and which he helped to downplay at the time. Ten years later, he decided to come clean. As a pilot and ex-Air Force captain, Symington’s startling testimony of a “massive, delta-shaped craft” moving silently over the Arizona mountains is convincing. “I can definitively say that this did not resemble any man-made object I’d ever seen,” he states. The military’s debunking of the lights as high-altitude flares is “indicative of the attitude from official channels,” Symington adds. “We get explanations that fly in the face of the facts.”

The mounting internal push by politicians for UFO disclosure isn’t limited to the United States. A heated debate among Japanese lawmakers over the existence of extraterrestrials made international headlines last December, with a top cabinet official remarking, “Personally, I definitely believe they exist.” Canada’s government has also faced calls for transparency regarding alien secrets from one of their own in the past year. In a February 2007 statement, ex-Defense Minister Paul Hellyer, a longtime civil servant turned UFO advocate, challenged his country’s leaders to relinquish suppressed E.T. energy technology that he claims could replace fossil fuels and save the world from global warming.

Thanks to the bold efforts of high-ranking figures like Hellyer, there are signs that the worldwide policy of confidentiality in UFO matters is beginning to shift. In 2005, the Brazilian military publicly recognized ufology as a valid scientific inquiry and relinquished classified investigations into unexplained sightings to a group of civilian researchers. Both Britain and France have announced programs of full disclosure in recent years, ceding their top-secret files to the public fascination with flying saucers. And in the most explicit instance of official validation for UFOs, the Mexican Department of Defense released video footage of 11 unidentified flying objects captured by infrared cameras during a March 2004 drug surveillance mission. This revelation prompted speculation that a once unilateral agreement towards UFO secrecy among world governments (presumably brokered under US authority) has begun to falter alongside a decline in American prestige abroad. As more international leaders come forward with evidence of extraterrestrial life, some argue, the onus increases on the United States for full transparency with its own citizens.

Perhaps this process of unveiling is already underway. Only three years ago, Richard Dolan wrote dismissively of a prevalent theory among UFO enthusiasts that the powers that be are “planning open disclosure ever so slowly, ever so gradually, and that a key method for doing this is through the media.” In his defense, this was written in the era before an unidentified craft hovered over O’Hare or zipped across rural Texas. No longer is the method of acclimation occurring by imperceptible degrees, but rather with ever-increasing frequency and publicity.

There are those critics who might find it somewhat naïve to suggest a shadowy union of media and government acting in concert to spread the UFO meme. Like Dolan, they argue that the multitude of mainstream channels merely operate out of their own self-interest to maintain a status quo paradigm of reality, upon which the authority of the "management class" depends. The occasional hoopla over UFOs is seen as accidental, some fringe fluff piece slipping past the censors. While this might have been true in the past, such reasoning does not apply in the case of Stephenville. The flurry of international media attention that beamed the mysterious Texas lights worldwide cannot be traced back to some isolated, negligent editor. Such a rapid mobilization of resources from across the spectrum of established networks suggests instead an organized, intentional effort behind the exposure.

Despite the vast proliferation of news outlets – print and online, radio and television – the administration of Big Media is becoming increasingly consolidated under a few colossal corporations. These establishments are often headed by notoriously controlling CEOs who keep close ties with government officials and are known for their unabashed partisan biases. While it may sound overly simplistic or paranoid to depict the mass media as a monolithic “they” doing the bidding of some grand conspiracy, it is evident that the press is a tightly orchestrated industry. If information managers are capable of spinning the public attention away from significant events or silencing disruptive reports, as many investigative journalists attest, surely we can imagine them competent enough to do the opposite as well. With this in mind, the scope of the media interest surrounding Stephenville’s UFO sighting is telling.

It is hard to imagine that the honchos of Big Media are not conscious of the high-profile headlines and broadcast time they've been suddenly granting to this previously taboo topic. Rupert Murdoch, arguably the most powerful information mogul alive, recently subsumed America's second-most widely read newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, into his ever-expanding News Corporation empire. Within weeks of the acquisition and only two days into 2008, the paper ran a front-page piece on Kucinich's UFO experience – a move that baffled media analysts. Devoid of tongue-in-cheek jibes or skeptical critique, the article is a straightforward (and rather lengthy) retelling of the Ohio congressman’s 1982 encounter, supported by candid testimony from two other eyewitnesses.

While some interpret the item as an election year smear against the then-presidential candidate’s credibility, a staff writer at the news industry journal Editor & Publisher finds the publicity curiously irrelevant: “Was there really any pressing need to cover Dennis Kucinich’s old, and much laughed over, UFO encounter, especially with him about to poll about 1% of the vote in Iowa?” This is a fair criticism, particularly in light of the article’s conspicuous placement. Moreover, the piece closes with an odd twist – a passing mention of Kucinich’s vote last December in favor of a House resolution “praising Christmas and Christianity.” This comment is strangely out of place, and could only serve to soften the congressman’s image in the eyes of a religious American public.

Rather than disparaging the character of a viable political foe, Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal has more accurately strengthened the reputation of a marginal opposition candidate, while at the same time plainly reporting the facts of a multiple-witness UFO sighting – all presented, most incongruously, on the financial newspaper’s cover page. This could hardly be dismissed as an editorial oversight or newsroom gaffe. It is indeed as if someone is “trying to influence our reality” – but to what end?

The Disclosure Project, a UFO declassification initiative founded by Dr. Steven Greer, held a press conference in May 2001 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Featuring a broad panel of high-ranking US government and military officials, the event presented eyewitness accounts of covert UFO operations, encounters, and recovered alien technologies. Although the live Internet broadcast drew record numbers of online viewers, it received only brief mention in the mainstream media. In a 2004 recollection of the event, Dr. Greer explains the lack of coverage:

“Senior producers at two Big Media networks, who had been briefed in advance and were planning major exposés in their newsmagazine programs, later told me that they were not allowed to go forward with their investigations or broadcast the programs. When I asked why, they simply said, ‘They just won't let us do it.’ And when I ask who are ‘they’, I was told, “Dr. Greer, you know who they are…'”

Whoever “they” may be, it appears that their long-standing intolerance toward the subject of extraterrestrial life has drastically lifted, for reasons that remain unseen. Along with the changing attitude of the media establishment, serious inquiry into UFOs is now a rising movement in nations around the world. To those intrepid believers who have chronicled the secrecy surrounding this phenomenon over six decades, these developments indicate a startling shift.

Is it possible that some grand moment in human history is approaching that will lay bare the mystery of life outside our planet? And if so, could it be that a privileged cadre of administrators has accelerated the process of bracing us for an ultimate disclosure?

Or perhaps what is occurring is less a publicity campaign and much more a profound unfolding in the human psyche, a co-evolution between mass media and group mind making us more receptive to our otherworldly visitors.

There's no way to know how deep this rabbit hole goes, but one thing is for certain: All eyes should remain on the skies – and on the TV.


Image credit: "Strange Lights" by The Richards, used via Creative Commons license.

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