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September 29 , 2007

War of the Words

The True but Strange Story of the Gulf Breeze UFO


Journalists should avoid cliches, but they are just too useful. "A picture is worth 1,000 words," and in the case of the 38 "Gulf Breeze UFO" photos shot by Ed Walters in 1987-1988, millions of them – weird, angry, hilarious and profound words. Words by Dave Barry, Mike Royko and Fox Mulder. Words on "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Oprah." With the 20th anniversary approaching I think about another cliche with a twist: "Truth is funnier than fiction." As a reporter in Pensacola, Fla., I found myself in a "War of the Words." TV networks flocked to town, Believers and Debunkers battled over Ghost-Demon photos and Army deserters arrived in search of the Second Coming. With the mayor and police chief on one side, and community leaders and the local paper on the other, I went looking for the last word on the subject. I found a spaceship.
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Millions of Americans believe that we are regularly visited by beings from outside the Earth, and many are sure they have seen UFOs and even see them regularly. Craig R. Myers has not only seen one, but he has held it in his hand. This was in Florida, in the middle of the famous Gulf Breeze UFO mania of twenty years ago, and the UFO which he had himself captured was of distinctly terrestrial origin, but it had been made by the hoaxer who had sparked the Gulf Breeze sightings. There are plenty of books to tell you where UFOs come from, how we can invite more of them, and what to do when one captures you. War of the Words: The True but Strange Story of the Gulf Breeze UFO (Xlibris) probably won’t match sales of many of those other books, but it is shocking and revelatory in its own way. It is impossible to argue, of course, that since this episode was a hoax, all UFO sightings are hoaxes and those who sight them are being fooled, but Myers has given a story with a skeptical bent that indicates the most useful way to regard such “phenomena”. It is a funny book; it even includes Dave Barry’s amusing column about his own visit to Gulf Breeze and his investigation of the mania. It is, however, a serious report by a journalist who covered the story at the time; skeptics ought to enjoy it and True Believers ought to learn from it.

Woodward and Bernstein got the story of their lifetimes because they happened to be in the right place and time. Not every journalist’s story of a lifetime has such national implications, but Myers is grateful that he was around for what he calls “the most interesting, frightening and funny story of my at-that-time short career.” Maybe this was just in contrast to his usual beat for the Pensacola News Journal, where he reported upon what the county commissioners and the utility authority were up to. A rival paper, The Gulf Breeze Sentinel, published anonymously-submitted photographs of a UFO in November 1987, but they were not the first UFOs seen in the area. Gulf Breeze is directly in the flight path of an airport, and is near a naval air station and an Air Force base, so that there are plenty of lights in the sky. In such a locale, if you are of a mind to be fooled by a mysterious light, says Myers, “... it is quite simple to let yourself think that this is something besides an earthly craft.” Indeed, on any clear night, the Gulf Breeze Research Team might be out doing what it called a Skywatch, excitedly whispering to each other “Do you see that one?”

So some Sentinel readers were already primed when the paper published a picture of a classic flying saucer. Myers says there are two ways a paper can report on UFOs. One is to report on the broad phenomenon of UFO sightings, and the other is “to report UFO sightings as frequently, and with as little confirmation and editing, as it publishes engagements, weddings, births, Optimist Club donations, honor rolls, obits, and arrests.” He does not crow too much that his Journal chose the former while the Sentinel chose the la
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