We Just Had to Ask: George Knapp
Investigative reporter, On truth, journalism, and UFOs
It seems we’ve entered a time in which people give the same weight to opinions as to facts, and in which they’re much less willing to be swayed by facts. How does this complicate your work as an investigative reporter?
It not only seems much worse, it is much worse. Facts and truth have taken serious body shots. They’re on the canvas, and the ref is counting them out, but it looks like they are getting back up.
There have always been attacks on journalism, as well as counter-narratives promoted by political interests. What’s different now is the triumph of tribal loyalties, both on the right and the left. We’ve seen tribal loyalty trump science, loyalty to country and constitution, fealty to our military. We have even seen tribalism prevail over religious beliefs. (Example: Christian conservatives rallying to support Roy Moore in Alabama, even though he admitted a hankering for teenage girls.)
In this kind of hyperpartisan environment, it’s not surprising that someone would promote the existence of “alternative facts,” even though that idea is preposterous. We know the Earth is not flat. We know who won the popular vote last year. Those are verifiable facts. But I suspect that if certain news organizations were to defend false facts on any of these points, a pretty substantial portion of the tribalists would go along with it.
If anything, the triumph of bullshit over fact has made my job more important than ever. Journalism is hard work. Digging up facts, especially facts that someone in power is trying to hide, is difficult. Unleashing a torrent of personal opinion and vitriol is not. The tsunami of fake news, alternative facts, and unsupported opinion can and does overwhelm many of us. We need journalists to help us separate wheat from chaff.
By the way, there was a Rand study a year or so ago which looked at how the Kremlin promotes disinformation. The goal is to confuse and overwhelm the public so that, in the end, people just give up trying to separate fact from fiction. That should scare all of us down to our bones, especially when we look at how things have played out over the last two years. Attacks on media bias are not new, nor do I think the criticism is entirely undeserved. But what we are seeing now is an attack not just on journalism, but on reality itself. When politicians can create their own reality — and their public goes along with it — then everything we profess to care about is in serious peril.
Solid, professional journalism is a defense against the triumph of false narratives. The act of ferreting out truth is pretty much the same as always, but getting people to take off their tinfoil hats and listen to something that clashes with their personal opinions is much harder than at any time in my career.
You’ve long had a foothold in two worlds — fact-based investigative journalism, and reporting on such topics as UFOs, a world in which there are as many gray areas as facts. Are there differences in the way you approach each?
I’ve always approached the UFO subject the same way I would handle any other story. It’s my job to figure out what is true, what is factual, and what can be supported by evidence. Ninety to 95 percent of everything related to UFOs is either made up, distorted, or is an honest mistake, which is why I always tried to focus on the other 5-10 percent. If there is nothing but an eyewitness account, then chances are it is not something I would report.
The public has always been interested in UFOs, but my media colleagues have not. I’ve taken a lot of grief over the years, and the harshest comments have always come from fellow journalists who feel my coverage of UFOs is an embarrassment to the profession. My view is that ignoring the subject is a greater embarrassment because it means my media brethren have committed the cardinal sin. They made up their minds ahead of time without doing any digging. We’re not supposed to do that — not for UFOS, not for any story or subject.
Suffice to say, I had to smile when the media narrative about UFOs suddenly changed back in December. The New York Times, which has been hostile to the UFO subject for decades, suddenly saw the light. Overnight, other news organizations underwent their own conversions. They seemed stunned to find out there is a legitimate story here after all, even though almost everything in those stories had been reported before. Robert Bigelow’s involvement in a secret Pentagon study is something I put on the air more than five years ago. The USS Nimitz’s encounter with a Tic Tac UFO first broke more than three years ago. In October, when Luis Elizondo made his first public statements about the Pentagon’s interest in UFOs, only two mainstream reporters in the country reported it, and I was one of them. The New York Times didn’t give it a single mention. Now, it’s one of the biggest stories of the year.
What’s the most encouraging trend you’ve seen lately in the practice of journalism?
I am proud to see news organizations stand up to power, even in the face of overt threats from the government, petty insults aimed at particular reporters, threats to broadcast licenses, threats to cut off access to people and places, attacks on specific journalists and news organizations, and the encouragement of violence against reporters. There have always been criticisms about media bias, and it is true that bias does exist. Reporters are human beings, after all. We all make subjective judgments in the course of covering stories. But, in my lifetime, there has never been such a sustained and foul assault on a free press as what we are seeing now, along with the vigorous promotion of demonstrably false information. And, until recently, there haven’t been self-sustained news cocoons where like-minded people can reinforce their own preconceptions and exclude all information that might challenge their understanding of the world. I am not sure people realize what the long-term consequences of this might be. When the government is the ultimate arbiter of truth, things can get twisted in a real hurry.
The partisan tribalists on the right and the left may be lost causes, but fact and truth can still make a difference for the large group of us in the middle. We saw that in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race. The stories about Roy Moore’s appetites didn’t change everyone’s minds, but they changed just enough to swing that election. Facts matter, and once in awhile, truth does emerge. We are seeing that right now with the UFO topic.
I am encouraged by some of the tools now emerging in the digital world, the ability of people to track things down, to verify photos, to seek out sources of information that are solid and well-sourced. The trick is, they have to be willing to look for information that might conflict with their own die-hard worldviews.