Wednesday, November 3, 2010
UFO Journalist Leslie Kean in Q & A
Q&A: UFO Journalist Leslie Kean
Is the truth out there?
By Clint Hendler
Leslie Kean has written an unusual book on an unusual subject: Unidentified flying objects. But this Halloween weekend, Kean would like you to get any pictures of little green men you might have out of your mind.
Released this August, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record collects statements from an unexpected array of people—senior officers in militaries around the world, a former governor of Arizona, a former senior Federal Aviation Administration manager—who tell their first hand accounts of witnessing or investigating something that their best efforts could not explain.
Kean describes herself as an investigative journalist. In the mid-nineties, she transitioned from being an activist on Burmese democracy and human rights issues to writing about the country. Her work on the topic, most of it co-written with Dennis Bernstein, was published in many major newspapers and magazines. She later worked as a reporter and producer for Flashpoints, a radio program on KPFA, Berkeley’s Pacifica station.
UFOs was blurbed as a “fine piece of journalism” by NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien, and features an introduction by John Podesta, the former Clinton chief of staff, who supported a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that Kean helped successfully settled against NASA for records related to a contested 1965 incident outside of Pittsburgh. Kean (pronounced “cane”—Tom Kean, the former New Jersey governor and 9-11 Commission co-chair, is her uncle) spoke with CJR by phone.
What are the particular challenges to covering this subject as a journalist?
The biggest one is ridicule. A lot of that ridicule is deserved, because of the way that people interested in this carry on about it, and the kinds of information they put out as being valid. It’s just a cesspool.
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.
That was really an issue for years and years, but it got easier. I wrote a series of articles that were published in mainstream places, and I wouldn’t get any ridicule, because I think I was handling it in a way that most people don’t.
The other thing is that the subject is so inconclusive and nebulous. I was able to pull together a lot of solid information and government documents and high level sources for the book, but its still is extremely difficult to get a definitive conclusion to this problem. You want to be able to wrap up something and finalize it and have an answer and that doesn’t happen here.
When you just say the word UFO to people, they come with their own ideas. So what I’d like to ask is what aren’t you claiming in this book?
People assume UFOs are, one, a question of belief and, two, the reason they’re a question of belief is because the term means alien spacecraft. Neither of those things are accurate. It was very important to me to make it clear from the beginning that nobody is claiming to know what the UFOs are.
When Joe Blow calls up and sees a light in the sky, it can be explained, like, probably every time. But in these very well investigated cases—and there aren’t that many—they seem to have been able to eliminate every possible explanation that we know of. If you have something where you have a huge amount of information and data about, for which there should be an explanation, but there isn’t, it becomes a dilemma. You get these generals saying that, well, maybe they’re extraterrestrial. They’re never going to say that—they would never go close to that—unless there was a real reason for it.
This is a real curiosity and there have been lots of people who have directly been involved who believe that it needs more investigation and that it’s very serious and very important. I don’t want to go further than that.
One of the things I thought was most fascinating in the book was the different ways that governments all over the world handle this question, especially the French.
Back in the mid ’70s the French set up a small government agency within their equivalent of NASA, specifically tasked with investigating these incidents. It still exists today. When something happens, there are people they can call in to assist from various specialties, depending on what’s needed. So say that there’s a case where something lands—they might need a soils expert to look at samples, they might need a plant pathologist to look at decay or burning of plants. They might need a psychologist to interview a witness to determine if this witness is hallucinating or if he is of sound mind.
They have a steering committee that meets three or four times a year to go over the data and analyze cases. In the process of that they have accumulated a lot of very interesting data; a lot of the most interesting stuff has to do with physical evidence.
France is unique in its scientific emphasis and the scientific approach. They’re devoted to doing this purely for research’s sake. In other countries—Peru, Chile, and Uruguay—these agencies are set up in the military or air force and work from an aviation safety or military point of view. The UK Ministry of Defense had a big one, but they closed it down in 2008 because they were so overwhelmed with Freedom of Information requests.