Walter Zacharius, the chairman emeritus and founder of Kensington Publishing, died last Wednesday, March 2, 2011. He was 87 years old. He was the lion of mass-market publishing, and along with Tom Doherty of Tor/Forge Books, Tom Doherty Associates, he helped create the modern science-fiction market. Walter was one of the first creators of the back-to-back mass market titles and ultimately built one of the last independent publishing companies still in business.
Walter was one of my first publishers back when Joel Norris and I were writing mass-market true crime books. He was polite and courteous, but he didn't mince words when he was telling you why he wasn't going to publish one of your manuscripts.
Other publishers deferred to Walter because of his extraordinary marketing ability and uncanny sense of what titles would fit best into specific markets. His authors deferred to him because not only was he their pubisher, his advice was almost always painfully accurate and honest.
As Walter's executive editor at Kensington, Michaela Hamilton wrote in the company's press release: "Walter’s foresight extended to his ability to uncover new talent, and he was responsible for discovering and publishing many bestselling and legendary books and authors including Mario Puzo, Ken Follett, Richard Condon, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Jerzy Kosinski, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Reagan, Fern Michaels, Lisa Jackson, Carl Weber, and Tucker Max."
From the beaches at Normandy, where he landed on D-Day, to New York City boardrooms, where he fought to keep Kensington independent, Walter demonstrated his leadership and courage. The words, "Walter would like you to pop in," still fill me with a sense of dread. After the dread, however, there was always a truth. As one of his authors and friends, I will sorely miss him.
John Greenewald, Jr., creator of the Black Vault and one of the writer/producers on UFO Hunters, and I had a great interview on his radio podcast the other day. If you want to hear some inside stuff about UFO Hunters and tv shop talk, this is a good conversation.
Long, long, long ago, long before the DARPAnet became the Internet, before there was a worldwide web, before there was a Watergate, and even before Jesse Marcel went public with his story of what happened to him at Roswell, I taught both Journalism and Media and Communications at Trenton State College, now called The College of New Jersey.
In those days I was a totally naive academic, who believed in the neutrality of the media, and in the intellectual honesty of those who reported on stories and investigated the facts behind the stories they reported. Even though it was a time when Old Journalism was changing into the new Participatory Journalism, I still held to the old fashioned belief that the media were just that: media, channels of communication and not part of the stories they reported. Naive indeed.
What I could not foresee, during those days of innocent academia, was a time in which the media itself would become the story, participants in it so as to make it grow to proportions larger than it should. That has indeed happened a lot over the past four decades. But that’s also what happened to me just a few months ago when two young men named Joe Rudy and Chris Russo decided to teach us all a lesson in what they called “rational thinking” by affixing flares to helium-filled balloons and setting them off into the night sky over the controlled airspace of northern New Jersey in January, 2009, thereby setting off what was to become the “Morristown Lights” hoax. Or, at least, that’s what the media called it.
As set forth in the various news blogs that reported on this story, Russo and Rudy were aware of various experiments in which people launched flares attached to balloons to try to reproduce a UFO aerial phenomenon. There have been a few television experiments like this, including ones that we did, and, as I understand it, this is what prompted Rudy and Russo to set up their so-called social experiment in what they proclaimed to be "rational thinking."
According to Sharon Begley, writing in her Newsweek blog published on April Fool’s Day, Rudy and Russo had published an article in eSkeptic in which they decided to take the “pseudoscience” of ufology to task by coming up with a scheme to expose ufologists’ lack of rational thinking. OK so far. Their idea, as they also expressed it to Brian Donohue of the Newark Star Ledger, was to expose the “charlatans” in the field of UFO research, the “self-appointed experts, who profit from the public gullibility.” They did this by launching flares attached to balloons and then filing a UFO sighting report with MUFON. The local media bought it and broadcast the story of lights over New Jersey. This, Rudy and Russo said, was actually a “social experiment.” They not only staged the experiment, but then carried it one step further by filing a false report of a UFO sighting to MUFON. MUFON quickly caught onto the hoax by noticing that name that Joe Rudy used to report the sighting did not match his email address in any way. A brilliant experiment, to be sure.
But Chris and Joe had a bigger target in mind, or so they said. They told Brian Donohue that they were really after UFO Magazine and our television show to get us to bite and, ideally, identify the lights as a flying saucer or some kind of alien spacecraft. That was their stated intent, and, according to Sharon Begley’s Newseek blog, that’s exactly what we did.
Except we didn’t.
There was one small problem with Sharon Begley’s report, it was inaccurate. Instead of proclaiming the lights to be a flying saucer, we did nothing of the kind. To be more specific, the two Morristown rational-thinking e-skeptics said that I said these couldn’t have been flares or Chinese lanterns. However, a quick review of the video the hoaxers and bloggers referred to shows that I never said anything of the sort. In fact, even Brian Donohue admitted to me over the phone that I never called these lights “flying triangles” or “flying saucers,” but referred to them as what they actually were: unidentified lights. Moreover, on camera I said that it was our intention -- which it was when we said it -- to take the video back to our analyst to have it evaluated to find out exactly what these lights could be. And that’s what we said in our video piece.
Not to belabor the point, I never said that these lights were a flying triangle, a flying saucer, or any type of alien space craft. I said that although the lights looked rigid with respect to each other, I would have to see what our video analyst would say. As far as I was concerned, because, unlike MUFON, I was not privy to any conversations about the origin of the lights, these were unidentified and would remain so until evaluated by our analyst. And that was it.
Nevertheless, what I said in this piece and what I did not say during this piece seems to have gone over Sharon Begly’s head because, instead of contacting me to confirm any facts that were set forth by Rudy and Russo, she went ahead and published their version of the story that I and UFO Magazine -- which had nothing to do with the story because we never covered it -- had been hoaxed. None of this was true, yet this is what was reported. Thus the self-described hoax was an entirely confabulated story based on claims of the hoaxers themselves, who, to make their point, lied to the folks at MUFON, even going so far as to use a fake name to make the report.
From that point on, the various media that covered the Morristown lights story ran with the hoaxers’ version of the facts and the story that appeared on other blogs. I was out of the country at the time, so I let the entire incident go without any comment until Brian Donohue from the New Jersey Ledger decided to cover the fact that both Rudy and Russo had been sentenced to a fine and community service in Hanover Township for their behavior in releasing balloons over the airspace. Somehow, according to Donohue’s column, these guys were cult heroes for hoaxing the media, frightening Paul Hurley’s daughter, an eleven-year-old girl, and hoaxing us. But they never hoaxed us and never hoaxed MUFON. On camera I said the lights were simply unidentified. UFO Magazine never even covered the story. And the Hanover Township police called the lights flares on balloons from the outset.
In other words, the reporting on the incident was not based on any actual facts of the incident, but on stories covered by other bloggers and the story told by the hoaxers themselves. It was a media-fed story only.
The folks who were hoaxed, twice, were the media outlets, which fed on their own coverage to find humor in the entire event. The other folks, who were hoaxed and jumped into the fray to pound their own chests in a frenzy of communal hypergrandiosity, were the self-described UFO commentators, self-appointed UFO investigators, self-proclaimed podcast pundits, and just about anybody in the nonfield of ufology, who wanted to get in a shot before the story faded away.
In fact, the ufologists, who were suckered into this nonstory, were the real gulls. They fell for the hoax because most, if not all, of them had not actually seen the video pieces, which later appeared on Youtube. Had they done their own independent analyses of the events, they would have realized that the only hoax was the hoax the hoaxers were claiming to have perpetrated. In other words, it never happened, but the ufologists seeking to inflict wounds upon themselves, made an event appear to be real that never was. This is all too common among self-promoting UFO commentators, looking for anything they can use to incite their cult followers.
Phil Corso, (I know, I know), once said that neither the government nor the military ever needed to cover anything up because the UFO community did a better job of covering up and pumping out disinformation than any military agency could. And this Morristown case study shows, simply from the perspective of the media spin and the ufologists’ collective response, that Corso was right.
This case study also shows that Stan Friedman is right when he says that debunkers, even our own debunkers in the UFO Taliban, operate by proclaiming something to be true despite all the evidence to the contrary. Pounding the table to them is better than pounding the facts because the facts are often too inconvenient for ufologists to swallow, and, besides, they’ve already made up their minds.
For me, this would have been a perfect case study for student discussion in an Introduction to Media and Communications course had there been an Internet, a Youtube, or personal computers way back then on some nice, brisk, fall day on the suburban campus of Trenton State College.
But that was long ago before there was a ufology.
I am still trying to figure out the history of the Area 51 Conference for which I was listed as a speaker, but about which he Clarion Hotel in Las Vegas -- the venue for the conference -- said it had no information. Innocent attempt at a conference that failed or something far more nefarious? I don't know. I have heard that our friend and UFO Hunters guest expert, Norio Hayakawa, said he had been scheduled to appear, so that accounts for something. George Knapp said that the name of the conference rang a bell in his mind. I will find out more and let folks know. And if I have made any unfounded accusations, I will certainly apologize and set the record straight.
We're packing up in Dugway, Utah, and heading home for a much-needed break. For all the experiences we had this shooting season, none was more exciting than our confrontation with Defense Department police, possibly the men in black, who confronted so many UFO investigators seeking the truth at Dugway. The police actually crossed over their line of jurisdiction to demand our cameras, our tapes, and our IDs. Although I was flanked by two retired police officers, one of whom was a fed, as I confronted the Defense Department officer, I was still very thankful for my Constitutional law class in law school. We backed them down and forced the base PAO to come out of her office, get on camera, and reveal to us that the Army proving ground at Dugway was the home of contractors developing exotic technology. Did she tell us about the UFOs? No, but we had the photos and the eye witnesses. This is our finale episode this season, and it was a good one. We met the men in black at Dugway, and they backed away.