Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Mainstream Media’s Lonely UFO Blog is Dead – Long Live 'Life in Jonestown!'

Billy Cox and The Great Taboo

Into the great wide open

     Thirteen months after the lockdown, our fourth corporate master in 10 years gave the OK – employees who wanted to return to the newsroom were officially free to do so, strictly voluntary. For me, it was too late. I’d submitted my two-week notice the Monday before.

It had taken 2½ Hefty garbage bags to clear out 15 years of notes, sediment, souvenirs, books, memories. And so few unifying fragments:
Billy Cox
By Billy Cox
The UFO Chronicles
Scraps from a since-deceased septuagenarian who once briefly fell in with Ezra Pound at the St. Elizabeth’s psych ward, then set about finding a voice of her own (“Point the corpses toward their god/Let the bony fingers clutch the truth”). The 20-year-old entrepreneur aiming to make a fortune in the chicken-diaper racket. The barefoot reality-show star who runs down Burmese pythons for profit in Big Cypress. Press lanyards from Wallenda wirewalks at Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Chicago. Paper plates, a life preserver (?), a Pedro’s South of the Border Sombrero Tower shot glass. The Marine who returned from Nam with both legs missing, only to become a world billiards champion. The Marine who returned from Afghanistan without a scratch – graduating with a political economics degree from Cal-Berkeley, accepted by three law schools, eating his .357 Magnum days before a Thanksgiving family reunion.
The full range. But I’d had enough. Of the daily newspaper grind.

Billy Cox taking one last look at the Herald-Tribune’s printing press in Sarasota
Billy Cox taking one last look at the Herald-Tribune’s printing press in Sarasota
There is no elegant way to pull the plug on a product not enough people value anymore. Evidence for that had been piling up for more than a decade at the Herald-Tribune. The newsroom had been gutted long before the coronavirus diaspora, by an epidemic far more demoralizing and complete than the empty desks and chairs on the fifth floor of the SunTrust building off Main Street, Sarasota.

The digital revolution – irresistible, indispensable, miraculous, omnivorous – had swallowed everything in sight – advertisers, market share, attention spans, discernment – and replaced it with a form of dopamine addiction and related social behaviors we do not fully comprehend. Among the big losers was community journalism, the grass-roots watchdogs keeping an eye on city hall, vanishing into “news deserts.”

Yet, it wasn’t Gannett’s imposition of Spandex mandates for “optimizing” and “maximizing” brand exposure that sent me over the edge. It wasn’t about auditioning for a succession of bloodless vampire suits with no intention of ever working raises into sustainable business models. It wasn’t about the daily deadlines that bordered on parody, or the prospects of unending demands for “listicles” and “The 10 Best [rent this space]!” Nor was it about rolling with the bottomless formatting and content tweaks to our digital app, the prescribed magic bullet for targeting enough digital subscribers to relieve the company of its $1.5 billion debt load.

Nope. The final straw was when Gannett — counting some 260 dailies, the largest newspaper chain in America — killed my UFO blog, De Void, in March.

I started the thing in 2007, subtitled “The Mainstream Media’s Lonely UFO Blog.” Which was literally true. No other daily newspaper reporter in the U.S. had bothered to peek behind the laugh curtain on a regular basis. When, during a presidential debate that November, Dennis Kucinch ‘fessed up to his own sighting, the admission triggered every spontaneous “out of this world” brain-fart cliché the desk hacks could turkey-walk into a headline. It was all ghetto skank back then, populated in the collective media mind by charlatans, conspiracy freaks, and mentals.

But just look – thanks to the 12/17 NY Times green light, everybody’s flocking to the phenomenon now like they knew it all along.

I’m a big fan of The New Yorker, and I often thought, if UFOs ever made it into that cathedral of long-form journalism, then the cognoscenti can’t play dumb anymore, game over. Well, last week, even the New Yorker weighed in. Consequently, the most profound mystery of our age has morphed into a competitive and dramatic national/international scramble for scoops, answers and notoriety. Who could’ve ever foreseen “60 Minutes” having to play catchup to The Debrief, or The Drive, Knapp-Corbell? Or even UFO Jesus?

The good news is, amid this clamorous momentum, Gannett didn’t spike De Void over subject matter; most likely, their digital gurus never even read it. The reason, relayed to me by an office clerk, was the “Readability” metrics cited by WordPress.

Picking a single post at random, I discovered way more than I needed to know about my shortcomings from the SEO summary: a) my copy lacked subheads, b) three consecutive sentences started with the same word, and c) 39.7 percent of my sentences contained 20 words or more, which was quote “more than the recommended maximum of 25 percent” end quote.

Iced by an algorithm. Grrr.

This all goes down on the front end of a UFO debate that could and probably will change everything we know about reality and our place in it. And we’re having it at a moment that finds our democracy at a crossroads, in peril, and we may not be smart enough to think our way through it. But we’ve been heading for a reckoning since the Founding Fathers’ signatures dried.

Thomas Jefferson once cautioned against regarding the Constitution as “too sacred to be touched.” He added, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Amendment remedies notwithstanding, the United States’ foundational garments were splitting at the seams well before the advent of digital media, as tsunamis of political cash swamped our “sacred” machinery and short-circuited its ability to accommodate the growing complexities of our fragile experiment.

Today, nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century, an entire political party is in thrall to a dangerous and deep-pocketed populist cult whose fanaticism roils with religious fervor. It repudiates science and immutable facts, terrifies elected officials who deviate from an aggressively deranged script, and shows no hesitation about soiling democracy’s institutions when elections break the other way. And given the collapse of community journalism (full circle), look for this echo chamber of fear and paranoia to flourish in the vacuum.

Ronald Reagan famously wondered if, confronted by extraterrestrial threats, the U.S., the Soviet Union, and the rest of the world might cast aside their differences and rally behind a unified front. Six presidents later, Americans have to take closed-door voice votes to see if 2 + 2 still = 4. And yet, at this combustible juncture, in a scenario unthinkable before 12/17, traditionally obstinate national security bureaucracies are beginning to concede the obvious, that our defense technology is not in command of the high ground (to say nothing of the high seas), and probably never was. The reasons why they’re copping to it now are still unfolding.

It’s impossible to know just how destabilizing this unprecedented line of inquiry will ultimately prove. But here we are. And here we go. Our journey into the cosmic outback could be the last best hope for rediscovering what binds us together in the first place. And it might well fail. Is there life left in Jonestown? One way to find out:

Full speed ahead.

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