News & Politics

NBC’s Dateline Airs Misleading UFO Footage


Here we go again.

UFOs are easy ratings, so I guess it isn’t surprising that Dateline aired something last night called “10 Close Encounters Caught on Tape.” To its credit, the NBC program at least made an attempt to provide prosaic explanations for each of the events it presented. In most cases, those explanations were actually pretty good, and the “UFO experts” came off as yahoos.

But when I realized that they were saving for last — the #1 event! — the lame Phoenix Lights, the 1997 event that I helped debunk years ago as a reporter in Arizona, I prepared myself for yet another time that so-called journalists wouldn’t get even the most basic facts right.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Hey, NBC, try to pay attention: there were TWO separate events on the night of March 13, 1997 over the skies of Arizona. The mysterious “vee” that so many people across the state witnessed was seen over Prescott at about 8:15 p.m. and traveled south over Phoenix at about 8:30 andpassed over Tucson at 8:45. That’s 200 miles in thirty minutes which — check with your calculator if you’d like — means the vee was moving at about 400 miles per hour. Some early eyewitnesses perceived that the vee was high in the sky, others swore it was low and moving very slowly. (And I mention “early” purposely. As the months passed, more and more elaborate — and ridiculous — claims were made by eyewitnesses who were clearly trying to one-up each other.) But as I’ve pointed out many times, the eyeball is a lousy instrument for judging the altitude of point sources of light in a night sky. Simple physics, however, suggests the vee was high in the sky and moving very fast.

As I first revealed in the Phoenix New Times in 1998 on the event’s first anniversary, a young man with a Dobsonian telescope spotted the vee from his backyard, and saw that it was a formation of airplanes. When the young man, Mitch Stanley, tried to contact a city councilwoman making noise about the event, as well as a couple of UFO flim-flam men working the local scene, he was rebuffed. I was the first reporter to talk to him, and, as a telescope builder myself, I made a thorough examination of his instrument and his knowledge of it. (For the inexperienced: a Dobsonian telescope is much easier to move than the crappy department store scope in your garage; it’s child’s play for an experienced observer, like Stanley, to get a good look at passing planes at altitude.) And he had a witness: he had told his mother, who was standing nearby, that the lights were planes. After my story, the Arizona Republic also wrote about Stanley, and also found him impressive. Didn’t you check that out, Dateline?

Back to the night of March 13. News of the 8:30 pm sighting traveled fast, so a large number of people were outside with videocameras when the second and unrelated event, at about 10 pm, happened in the sky southwest of Phoenix. A string of lights appeared in the sky, and slowly sank until they disappeared behind the nearby Estrella Mountain range. This was later shown to be a string of flares dropped by the Maryland Air National Guard over the North Tac military range. Dr. Lynne Kitei can tell NBC that these lights were magical and “intelligent” and later showed up just outside her living room window all she wants, but the videotapes taken that night by many people show without a doubt that this was a string of mundane lights that fell and disappeared behind the range, exactly as a string of flares dropped by the military planes would.

Now, the problem developed when the “flare” explanation emerged first, and took root hard, explaining away the 10 pm sighting. But for the many people who had seen the earlier vee pass directly over their heads, flares made no sense whatsoever. And news organizations never bother to differentiate between the two events or report on the Stanley identification — even the Arizona Republic (a truly pathetic example of a daily newspaper) stopped referring to its earlier solid reporting on the Lights and began promoting it as “unexplained.”

To this day, programs like Dateline invariably question people who saw the earlier “vee” event, and quote them saying that flares couldn’t possibly explain what they saw. They are right. They didn’t see flares, they saw a formation of planes.

In last night’s program, Dateline repeatedly showed people talking about their memories of the 8:30 vee while showing video of the 10 pm flares. Talk about misleading.

By the way, NBC: There was a single camerman who caught the 8:30 vee and the later event. I saw his tape myself. It clearly showed the five lights of the 8:30 vee moving in relation to each other, exactly as you’d expect in a formation of airplanes. Couldn’t get that tape for your program?

As for the people who swore they saw a black triangular shape joining the five lights of the vee, that’s a classic contrast effect of the human eye. In another very telling case, a man who swore he saw a black shape joining the lights of the vee saw it pass directly in front of the moon. At that point, he saw not a black shape but wavy lines pass over the undimmed moon. But rather than conclude that he’d seen the contrails of planes, the man, who had already been worked hard by the flim-flam artists, concluded instead that the pilot of the alien craft had turned his spaceship transparent right at that moment so the man could see the moon through it. How thoughtful!

Perhaps it’s a good thing that NBC has now declared this the number 1 UFO sighting of all time. It’s one of the very few so well checked-out by reporters, and one of the few that has been so thoroughly debunked. But you won’t hear that from the networks, who can’t get enough of the ratings that come with “the unexplained.”

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 19, 2008

Archive Highlights