Calibrating the Press: The Fireball of 1972

Originally posted by Charles Packer to Usenet in Sept. 1993

The news media are known for magnifying events out of proportion
to their actual significance. I found an instance where they
made a truly spectacular occurrence sound to most Americans as if
it were nothing special. 

A recent article in the Science section of the NY Times (June
18), mentioned that an "asteroid" had grazed the atmosphere in 1972,
leaving a trail in the sky that was "witnessed by thousands of
people." But I had never heard of this and couldn't find
anything about it in the Times Index for 1972. This seemed odd,
because the Times covers science news extensively. Eventually I
learned of a reference to this event in an astronomy magazine. 

On August 10, 1972, a phenomenon known in astronomy as a "fireball"
occurred at 2:30 Pm Central Time over the Rocky Mountain states and
was indeed witnessed by thousands of people under its path,
which went from Utah almost exactly straight north all the way
into Canada. Fireballs are large meteors and those bright enough
to be seen in daylight are very rare. This one not only was
extremely bright, it also left a trail across the sky that
lasted for tens of minutes. (See my concurrent posting to
sci.astro,, "Fireball of 1972 -- latest word?")

Knowing the date of the event, I was able to check newspapers
other than the Times to see how they covered it. The morning
papers of August 11 from the area where the fireball was most
visible, Utah and Idaho, had the longest stories on it, written
by local reporters and quoting local spectators, though they
used an AP photograph of the object's trail. The West Coast and
Midwestern papers carried various versions of an AP dispatch.
The Eastern press had no stories at all. From the Television
News Abstracts, I learned that on the evening of August 10, only
one television network, NBC, mentioned the event in an item
citing the FAA as saying that an airliner pilot had seen a
flaming object, probably a meteor, pass under his plane. 

The AP dispatch that most papers carried had no dateline, that
is, a specific city from which it was filed. A few had it
datelined Denver. It stated that "one or more" objects had been
sighted over a wide area of the Mountain states and contained
contradictory reports of their direction of travel as well as
their altitude. It cited an FAA official as saying that an
object was at 80,000 feet over Missoula, but it also included
the item about the object passing under an airliner flying "in
Utah." It quoted NORAD, which keeps track of all orbiting
objects, as passing along a second-hand report of an object over
Boise going from west to east, rather than speaking
authoritatively about it. It quoted astronomer Sidney Hacher of
Washington State University in Pullman as saying that whatever
was seen was probably part of the annual Perseid meteor shower,
due to reach its maximum in the next few days. And it quoted
Mrs. Thomas Williams of Mead, Washington as declaring that what
she saw was "about four feet in diameter." 

In contrast to the AP dispatch, newspapers from the area where
the fireball was actually seen published coherent accounts.
In particular, there was no doubt that there was only one object
and that it was moving from south to north. And, according Patty
Minton of the Idaho Statesman of Boise, "Most observers, laymen
and experts, agreed that the object was traveling fast and at
great height." These papers raised the question of whether the
object might be manmade.(See Note 1) The Deseret News of Salt
Lake City cited a NORAD statement issued late in the day that
"it is either a space vehicle re-entering the earth's atmosphere
or a meteor." The scientist whom these papers quoted, Mark
Littman of the planetarium in Salt Lake City, said that the
object was probably =not= part of the Perseid shower, but rather
from the asteroid belt. Minton, in her Statesman article, noted
that experts differed on the object's origin without citing
Hacher explicitly, but she had obviously read the AP dispatch --
she handled the object-under-the-airliner report this way: 

  "Associated Press reports from Denver said a Frontier Airlines
   pilot allegedly saw it pass underneath his plane
   while it was in flight over Utah."

It seems to me that this fireball has as much significance for
the student of the news media as it has for an astronomer. It's
rare for a spectacular event to have no material consequences.
Nobody was killed and no property was damaged. It had no
political value, only news value. As such, it was a "pure"
stimulus, like the sharp blow to your knee that the doctor
administers to check your reflexes. 

In the case of the anonymous hacks of AP, it looks like their
reflexes are to rely on official pronouncements. They swallowed
the FAA and NORAD statements without examining their
contradictions.(See Note 2) For the one eyewitness report they
included, they ignored all the people on the street in Salt Lake
City and Boise, where AP presumably has reporters, in favor of
somebody from a town I couldn't even find in a 1980 road atlas.
Her certainty that it was "four feet in diameter" just adds to
the confusion conveyed by the dispatch, and leaves the
impression that people in the Mountain States had been
hallucinating that afternoon. 

The confusing situation portrayed by the AP dispatch suggests
that it was compiled hastily soon after the fireball and never
updated.(See Note 3) Yet it was apparently released very late in
the day because it didn't make it into the Eastern newspapers or
the network TV news shows. 


Note 1:
The Spokane Spokesman-Review, appropriately enough for a
location near the edge of the viewing area, had a mixture of AP
material and local reportage in its story. Most interesting was
the extensive quoting of an unidentified person the paper
referred to as a spokesman (seems like a contradiction right
there, doesn't it?) for Fairchild Air Force Base. This
individual was of the strong opinion that the object "was a
manmade satellite that broke away from its orbit." Among the
more dubious statements attributed to this spokesman was "A
meteor would look like a rock and generally would not be
flaming." He also said the object might have "rejoined its
orbit," the only expression anywhere of the notion that the
object might have left the atmosphere. 

Note 2:
The San Francisco Chronicle tried to resolve the contradiction
of and object at 80,000 over Montana and one that flew under an
airliner in Utah. In the small space it allocated to the
fireball report, they wrote 

  "A fireball, possibly a deteriorating meteor, flashed
  across the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains yesterday
  afternoon, dipped beneath an airliner and vanished,
  observers said."

Note 3:
I found a couple of evening papers whose August 11 editions
carried an updated AP dispatch. Gone was the story of anonymous
pilot seeing an object flying underneath his airliner. Instead
there was a quote from a Frontier pilot identifed as Bob
Bagshaw, whose description was more in line with those cited by
the Utah and Idaho papers. Also, oddly enough, these papers
stated that Fairchild AFB had tracked the object on radar, but
there were no other details. 

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