Guess Who Else is Serving up Junk News and Conspiracies?

Mainstream media needs to reckon with the widespread propagation of a sensational, thinly sourced story

There is much truth to this observation from CNN’s senior media reporter:

But we also need to be honest about mainstream media’s culpability (including CNN). As Craig Silverman noted in a 2015 study for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism: “Too often news organizations play a major role in propagating hoaxes, false claims, questionable rumors and dubious viral content, thereby polluting the digital information stream.”   

A good example of this is a daft UFO story that has been covered frequently in recent years at the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, among other prominent outlets.

The story in a nutshell: Two former government officials assert that UFOs are playing hide and seek with military pilots. One of them claims to have led a secret UFO Pentagon program (which the New York Times hyped in a 2017 story that went viral.) To be clear, there is no evidence that this person, Luis Elizondo, ever led a secret government UFO program, as I reported last year.

Nonetheless, Elizondo has since become the UFO-hunting star of a History Channel show (now in its second season) and a hero to the flying saucer crowd, which believes he is bulldozing a path to official government “disclosure” of space aliens. Over three years I have watched this narrative take on a life of its own. It started as an obscure blog post in October, 2017 by Leslie Kean, a UFO enthusiast and lobbyist, who then, several months later, parlayed her longstanding interest into that front page New York Times story that got picked up widely in the media. Kean, who has since written more about this dubious UFO/pentagon program for the Times, happens to belong to a UFO organization. Go figure.   

One of the chief architects of this UFO narrative hyped by Kean and the Times is Elizondo’s partner, Chris Mellon, a former top Defense Department official, who like Elizondo, is part of a UFO organization called To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science. The company was co-founded several years ago by pop/punk rock star Tom DeLonge (of Blink-182 fame), who believes he is privy to government secrets about alien bodies and crashed flying saucers—secrets he says he received from government insiders. The backstory on this is beyond absurd; you can listen to DeLonge tell it (with Mellon and Elizondo looking on) here. DeLonge further elaborated in this bonkers interview with Joe Rogan.

You would think this odd partnership between Mellon, Elizondo and DeLonge would give journalists pause. You would think that Kean’s background would disqualify her from writing about UFOs for any respectable newspaper. But most of all, you would think that the claims of mysterious UFOs repeatedly out-maneuvering U.S. fighter pilots—which is what Mellon and Elizondo keep insisting in television interviews—would be thoroughly vetted by respectable news organizations.

No such thing.

To cite just one recent example, here is a four minute-plus segment that CNN’s Michael Smerconish did, featuring Chris Mellon. In the intro, Smerconish starts off by referencing the latest zany New York Times story co-written by Leslie Kean (of course), which highlighted the unsubstantiated claim of a dodgy scientist who said that he had recently given the government a classified briefing on “off-world vehicles not made on this earth.”

Let me reiterate: This appeared as a news story in the New York Times.

Now, let’s cut back to Smerconish and that CNN clip. After spotlighting this unsubstantiated NYT bit about “off-world vehicles” and showing a visual of the Times story, Smerconish asks (with a straight face): “Are we on the brink of full disclosure about visitors from outer space?”

To discuss this weighty question, Smerconish then turns to Mellon, the former Defense Department official, who like Elizondo, is now hunting UFOs for the History Channel on its show, “Unidentified.” The latest episode is titled, “The UFO Cover-up.”

So yeah, if we want to be truly honest about our little problem with junk news and conspiracies, we in the media need to include ourselves in any reckoning.  As the excellent national security journalist Sharon Weinberger wryly observed last week: