Reporter at Work: A UFO? Bell It on the A-Wire!

By Bill Mead

In 1965 I was promoted from the UPI overnight desk in Chicago to Detroit as bureau manager.  It was a big promotion and I was eager to make a splash. UPI, back then, was David against the AP’s Goliath. The AP had more money and staffers, while UPI boasted of superior writing.

Critics sometimes accused our noble news service of hyping stories, making them look more important or interesting than events warranted. It’s unfair to slander an entire wire service, but I’ll confess to my share of pushing the needle on stories.

One morning in 1966 I arrived at the UPI bureau (a space inside a Detroit News garage). It was 8 am, my usual start time. Karen Valenta, our overnight editor, read me notes from a stringer in Ann Arbor who quoted a half-dozen deputy sheriffs as saying they saw a mysterious, glowing object dipping, flitting across the sky, rising. A UFO?

I interviewed the deputies by phone. Their descriptions agreed with one another and were eerily descriptive. I was wary of putting the story on the wire without blessing from above, so I called the desk in New York. The editor in charge shared that adventurous UPI spirit.

“Bell it on the A-wire!” he said.

By now it was 9:30 am, when afternoon newspapers are—or were—desperate for fresh news to splash on page one. So here it came, with five bells to alert the telegraph desk of every newspaper:

URGENT
Ann Arbor, Mich. (UPI)  Six police officers said today they saw a mysterious glowing object dipping and rising across the sky…

The AP ignored it.  So did the Detroit News. But not for long. Newspapers nationwide played the story on page one, and Walter Cronkite used it on CBS news that evening, crediting the UPI, for whom he once worked. The next day our UPI stringer in Hillsboro, Michigan, called with a report that coeds at Hillsboro College also saw a UFO.  We belled out our second UFO sighting and dispatched a reporter, Howard Fields, to chase more unidentified flying objects.

The Air Force gave us the next day’s story, dispatching its UFO consultant, a Northwestern University astrophysicist, to check things out.  Back then the Air Force kept track of UFO sightings, always debunking them. By the time the professor was ready to report the nationwide press had descended on Michigan, eyes to the skies, and he faced a media horde where he claimed the sightings were …swamp gas!

We identified the professor in the style of the day: “J. Allen Hynek, goateed astrophysicist…” His swamp gas finding became the fodder of cartoons and TV jokes. But Congressman Gerald Ford, later to become president, persuaded Congress to appropriate federal funds to investigate the UFO sightings in Michigan.

A few months later Governor George Romney, then a serious presidential prospect, flew into a Michigan resort town to address the annual meeting of Michigan editors.  He volunteered that his Michigan National Guard plane had been buzzed b a UFO. Five bells again, page one stories, and what a witness: The governor himself.

In fact it was a legitimate story. If you have six lawmen describing the same experience, one by one, you can’t ignore it. Turns out Dr. Hynek, on reflection, resigned his Air Force job, saying the Michigan UFO sightings, and others, were credible.  He founded the Center For UFO Studies and drew up a classification system for UFO sightings.  The phrase “close encounter” was his.

So what were those flying objects? I don’t know but Look magazine hired me to write a special issue on the adventure.  I wrote every word of a whole magazine and was paid $150.

Bill Mead worked for UPI in Richmond, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington.  He moved on to magazine work and to authoring six books on baseball history.

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