Prior to 2017, the possibility of a story about the existence of U.F.O.s landing on the front page of the Sunday New York Times seemed about as likely as a U.F.O. touching down, say, on top of the Times building on Eighth Avenue. But this has been a year where reality has been bent, distorted. So to read, in a sidebar to the Times’s December 17 U.F.O. exposé, about two Navy pilots and a radio operator describing a jet’s oceanic encounter off the coast of Southern California with an aerial phenomenon of unknown origin—“It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen”; “I have no idea what I saw”—was not as surprising as it might have been if there was not someone with orange hair in the Oval Office. The signs were there—we’ve been getting ready for them.
The main story, which focused on a now-defunct Pentagon program, nurtured by Harry Reid, to investigate the existence of U.F.O.s, finally crashed through a barrier between fringe and mainstream that’s been cracking for much of the past two years.
In the following days, one of the pilots related his experience in painstaking detail on CNN. (“It’s easy to doubt what we can’t explain, but when you actually see things . . . ”) Luis Elizondo, who exposed the program after resigning from the Department of Defense two months ago in protest of “excessive secrecy and internal opposition,” as the Times put it, appeared on the network as well. “My personal belief is that there is very compelling evidence that we may not be alone,” the long-serving former intelligence officer said in a real interview that aired on CNN in prime time. On MSNBC, one of the authors of the Times story, Ralph Blumenthal, talked about the existence, inside a Las Vegas storage facility, of “some material from these objects that is being studied so that scientists can try to figure out what accounts for their amazing properties . . . It’s some kind of compound that they don’t recognize.”
For Times editors, the primary considerations that led to the A1 publication of “Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program” were more earthly in nature. “The reason this was a story was because the Pentagon acknowledged it had spent $22 million of taxpayer money to investigate U.F.O.s from 2007 to 2012—and because Harry Reid had pushed for the funding, and was proud of it, on the record,” Washington Bureau Chief Elisabeth Bumiller, who oversaw the reporting, told me. “We talked about it the way we talk about all stories—it had to be airtight.” Bumiller also noted that “the story did not have a huge presence on A1 in print—it had only a small run on the front. On the Web, it had great play, in part because the video was so compelling.” (On that note, it topped the most-e-mailed and most-viewed lists, and a Times spokeswoman said: “Millions of people have read the story. It continued to draw large audiences days after publication. The videos that accompanied the story got huge audiences, too.”) Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, agreed with Bumiller’s assessment. “It was a story about government, and fights over funding and priorities. And it was damn interesting,” he said. “That feels to me like the makings of a story worth putting on the front page.”
As big as this moment was for the Times—“This is probably the most-watched and looked-at story The New York Times has run in a long time,” Blumenthal said (perhaps with some hyperbole, given Harvey Weinstein) during his MSNBC interview—it was even bigger for Leslie Kean, who shared a byline with Blumenthal and Times Pentagon correspondent Helene Cooper. To be sure, Kean told me that it’s “something I have spent over 15 years working towards.”
Kean is an investigative science journalist who has written extensively about U.F.O.s, including a 2010 book from Crown Publishing, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, that made the Times’s Best-Seller list and featured a foreword from longtime Clinton aide (and U.F.O. buff) John Podesta, who helped Kean settle a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit she had filed against NASA to obtain information regarding the 1965 crash of an unknown object in Pennsylvania. She’s a seasoned reporter with bylines in an array of mainstream publications, who began her career as a foreign correspondent covering Burma. (She is also the niece of former New Jersey governor Tom Kean.) If you Google “U.F.O. journalism,” Kean occupies the top search results, including a 2010 Columbia Journalism Review interview in which she recalls, “When I first took the subject on, I was really embarrassed. You go to a party and people ask you what you do, and when you say you’re a journalist, you’re just hoping nobody asks you what subject you focus on. You don’t want to tell because people laugh.”
Kean is the one who got the initial tip from Elizondo. She took it to Blumenthal, a veteran Times contributor who still writes for the paper and has known Kean for years, who then pitched it to Baquet. “At a confidential meeting October 4 in a Pentagon City hotel with several present and former intelligence officials and a defense contractor, she met Luis Elizondo,” Blumenthal wrote in a behind-the-scenes account for Times Insider. “This was big news because the United States military had announced as far back as 1969 that U.F.O.s were not worth studying . . . She spent hours with him reviewing unclassified documents.” Cooper was looped in to work her Pentagon connections and to interview Reid, and the reporting took off from there. “It was important that we not take anything on faith,” Blumenthal wrote. “This field attracts zealots as well as debunkers, and many Americans remain deeply skeptical that the phenomenon exists as popularly portrayed. In draft after draft, we took pains to let the investigation speak for itself, without bias.”
Over e-mail, Kean told me this wasn’t just about getting the story into a venerable newspaper like the Times, but that it was also crucial “that the story uncover official participation in investigating the unidentified objects. That is the most important element.” Kean insisted that the Times appearance hadn’t changed her work. “Although there is unfortunately plenty of fringe activity when it comes to U.F.O.s, my work has always avoided that,” she said. “I do not consider this subject fringe when I report on it, because I only report on credible, corroborated information. I have written for a range of mainstream media and my book was noted for its journalistic integrity and factual approach to a subject that needs more attention. The irrational stigma and ridicule around the topic has been a hard hurdle to overcome.”
Since the Times story broke, Kean said, she has been flooded with new tips—legitimate and otherwise. She said she expects to pursue follow-ups with additional revelations. I also asked her if the new revelations had an impact on her own beliefs. “I don’t think this is a matter of belief,” she said. “We still don’t know a lot about the unknown vehicles, but we do know that they exist, and they are physical.”
But when I asked Baquet the same, he replied: “I wouldn’t say it made me a believer.”