[Most of what's reported here has been covered in other articles in CNI News. What interests us most about this piece is that it appeared in the Washington Post.]
A man claiming to be a Vatican priest sends a letter to Art Bell, host of "Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell," currently America's highest-rated late-night radio talk show (heard on 328 stations). Bell reads the letter on the air. As someone with a "top level security clearance," the writer says, he has stumbled on some disturbing information: a "heavily encrypted sub-system" in the Vatican computer. Soon after, he writes, he was "approached by two of the Pope's top aides," became frightened and fled. Within two weeks, a contract had been placed on his life, his parents had been killed in a car crash, and "my brother and sister were killed when their single engine plane went down." Now the priest was on the run, "trying to decode the file."
The priest's letter is a pinch of leaven amid the weightier subjects usually favored by Bell's nationwide audience: UFOs, the secret alien-human alliance, "remote viewing," the face on Mars and, of course, the coming millennium catastrophes. (As any attentive Bell listener knows, the ancient Mayan calendar has long predicted that the world will end in 2012.)
Behind this bewildering compendium of what America talks about after midnight is the synergistic power of a new media loop: talk radio and the Internet. Like other talk programs, "Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell" has a well-maintained web site. On-line listeners download photos or send in facts, fictions, theories, counter-theories or hoots of derision. Much of the feedback finds its way back to the airwaves, where the cycle begins anew. It may loop forever -- or until 2012 at least.
So that noise you hear may be the splintering of a consensual reality. The recent chatter on Bell's show about the Hale-Bopp comet, scheduled to make its closest pass by Earth in April, is a cautionary tale about the fragile state of truth in our time. As processed by the radio-cyberspace paradigm factory, the comet story combines the hot extraterrestrial themes of movies like "Independence Day" and "Asteroid" with a dollop of scientific fact, the authority of a tenured professor at an elite university and a dose of self-promotional humbug.
The whole affair has left even Bell shaking his head, which is saying something.
The Hale-Bopp comet, a chunk of rock and ice sailing through interplanetary space, was discovered by American amateur astronomers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp in July 1995. But the real fireworks began Nov. 14, 1996, when amateur astronomer Chuck Shramek of Houston posted on the Internet a telescopic photograph he had taken. Near the incoming comet, the photo showed, was a luminous body with Saturn-like rings -- an object "so bright and strange I began to pray," said Shramek, who announced his find on Bell's show.
Enter Courtney Brown -- a tenured political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, author of a book called "Cosmic Voyage," and president and owner of Farsight Institute, a company specializing in "scientific remote viewing," the latest jargon for clairvoyance. "Remote viewing," the professor claimed in his book, enabled him to make the "truly staggering" discoveries of "at least two alien civilizations" that have been continuously and "intimately involved with Earth humans." (The Farsight Institute web site offers entry-level remote viewing courses for $3,000 and full "professional certification" for a total of $4,550.)
Following Shramek as a guest on Bell's show, the professor revealed that the Farsight Institute's remote-viewers had found the mysterious "companion" object to be larger than Earth, hollow and "under intelligent control" -- a kind of planetary spaceship hitching a ride on the comet.
On Nov. 29, Brown appeared again on Bell's program, this time with Prudence Calabrese, his assistant. Calabrese told Bell's audience that a well-known astrophysicist at a "top ten university" had sent Brown information confirming Farsight's remote-viewing results.
This astrophysicist, she went on, had taken several hundred photographs of the luminous object, which was not only real, but emanating "unambiguous radio signals." More significantly, the unnamed gentleman from the prestigious university planned to hold a press conference in a week to announce his findings. Meanwhile, he had sent Brown three rolls of undeveloped film. Two rolls unfortunately turned out blank, but the third had five "very good astronomical photographs," in Calabrese's words. To document their claim, Brown and Calabrese said, they had provided copies of one photo to Bell and another guest on the same show, Whitley Strieber, a man famous for his accounts of contacts between humans and aliens.There was a small catch, however: Bell and Strieber had agreed not to release their copies until after the announcement. The astrophysicist wished to remain anonymous until then, and didn't want anyone trying to trace the photo back to the originating observatory. The astrophysicist feared for "the safety of his family," Calabrese said, and wanted to develop "a completely irrefutable analysis before coming forward."
Bell promised not to release the photo early, but with a stipulation: If the press conference didn't occur "within a reasonable time," he would post the picture on his web site. The Farsight duo's electric revelation cranked up the volume of cosmic chatter on Internet news groups with names like alt.alien.visitors. Professional astronomers weighed in, accusing Shramek of mistaking a star, SAO 141894, for a UFO.
Channelers in tune with inhabitants of distant star systems -- Sirians, Reticulans, Pleiadians -- set a date for a mass landing of flying saucers from the Galactic Federation. Even the frightened Vatican priest got into the act: The hidden computer "subsystem" had "a link-up to the Hubble space telescope" that was "pointed directly at the comet."
Mostly, however, the insomniacs of the Radio-Cyberspace Nation waited for the astrophysicist's public announcement. The week went by. Then another -- and another. Finally, after a month and a half, Bell left a message on Brown's answering machine. Time was up, he said; he would release the astrophysicist's photo the next day.
Brown responded via answering machine, with a three-and-a-half minute message pleading with Bell to reconsider. The radio host's reputation was at stake, the professor argued. Listeners would resent his "breaking his word."
Ignoring Brown's plea, Bell posted the photo on the Internet on Jan. 14. So did Whitley Strieber.
The following day, both men received an e-mail from the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IFA). The message said the photo posted on their pages was a fraud, copied from a digital image that had been taken by an IFA astronomer on Sept. 1, 1995. The image had been on the IFA's web site for more than a year. As Olivier Hainaut of the IFA said later, the comet's mysterious companion was a hoax, inserted via digital image processing.
As for the Emory professor's claim of receiving the photo on a film roll, Hainaut was blunt: "Impossible, since the original [Hawaii] photos were obtained digitally." Nor was this all. Film, Hainut explained, is no longer used with "modern large professional telescopes" -- the type one might expect at a "top ten university." Even if film had been used, he said, the processing of astronomical photographic plates was "tricky," and had to be done immediately. Waiting more than a year -- as would have been the case with a roll film photo which by star position could only have been taken in Hawaii on the night of Sept. 1, 1995 -- was "unheard of."
On Jan. 17, Brown appeared again on Bell's show, now to explain the impossible. How could such a thing happen? he was asked by Bell and Strieber. The professor sighed. He couldn't account for it, he said, but suggested he might be the victim of a highly organized "disinformation campaign" long out to get his Farsight Institute.
Who was the astrophysicist who gave you the photograph? Brown wouldn't say, no matter how strongly Bell and Strieber prodded him. It would be "positively immoral" to reveal the astrophysicist's identity, he said, after promising he wouldn't. Also, it was possible the astrophysicist may have been duped; outing him wouldn't be fair, Brown said.
How about turning over the film roll to an impartial university for analysis? Long pause. "I'll think about it," he said.
Brown has yet to provide the film roll, the astrophysicist's identity or the name of the "top ten university." Nor is he returning phone calls. He "just can't spare time to focus on the media right now," a Farsight Institute employee says.
Like many stories cycling in the late-night cosmos, this one isn't over. The newest wave of arguments: that it was the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy that perpetrated the fraud, deleting the Hale-Bopp companion from Brown's genuine photo and thus continuing the cover-up of the imminent arrival of visitors from another solar system.
Ray LaFontaine, co-author of "Oswald Talked," is finishing a novel about Puerto Rican life in America.
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