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,sci.space, "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. FOOTNOTES 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.
Charles Packer email@example.com