Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Flying Saucer: A Manufactured Concept by Herbert Hackett







The Flying Saucer
A Manufactured Concept

Herbert Hackett
Ohio Wesleyan University 

(From Sociology and Social Research, May- June, 1948.)

It is interesting to examine the making of public opinion in the matter of the "flying saucer." Public opinion is, of course, not a thing, but the mixture of responses of a number of people to similar or related stimuli. This mixture takes form as a stereotyped, verbalized concept which is, for all practical purposes, a thing and thus used as the basis for action.1 The flying saucer is an excellent subject in that it is almost wholly a manufactured concept, lasting a short period of time and, so, easy to study.  It is, in addition, not too closely tied to the emotional colorations of prejudice and habit which would distort a similar study of opinion on Russia, vivisection, or the home. 

It was of little immediate interest when a pilot in Idaho “saw” a flying saucer. The wire services carried the story, tongue in cheek, and, having little news in the area, kept it alive from day to day with recapitulations of the original. Early the stereotyped concept was suggested; the term “flying saucer” was simple, so homely that everyone could visualize it. It was at once given authority by its appearance in the press. "There must be something to it. I read it in the paper.”

Later, we will see, the concept was strengthened by repetition, repetition by variations, “scientific" evidence and speculation, photography, analogy, wit, denial, apology. Newspapers, through juxtaposition, headlining, and suggestion, soon related it to other concepts, to well-established stereotypes and slogans — “the greatest air force in the world" and universal military training to protect "the American way of life" from "the menace of red- Fascism." Other events were soon reported which fitted the general pattern of the first story of early June 1947. A pilot "saw" one of the "what'sits" at 10,000 feet, going at 1,200 mph. When next “seen" the saucers had already acquired common, if vague, attributes of shape, size, speed, and altitude, and in a day or two had added "a blue, fiery tail," or "two tails like a comet." They came out of the West. 

So far there had been only a groping toward a plausible concept, with a gradual elimination of less easily grasped characteristics such as "disintegration," lateral and/or vertical revolution, and a "blister" for the pilot. Seemingly, however, the picture was about complete, for the wire services and editors the country over began to “lay” the story, concentrating all news of the event in one place, featuring the story by headlining and position, dramatizing it through pictures, invoking every “expert" in the land for pontification.

If we take Los Angeles as an example, it is interesting to note the lack of "live" news at the moment. The sensational Overell murder case had become involved in legal technicalities. There had not been for some time a sex crime where the “partially clad body" of a beautiful, young woman had been found.3 At the national level, John L. Lewis had been “good” for several weeks, coming to terms with the big steel companies, and the Russian”front" was still stalemated.

In the week of the saucer story St. Louis was concerned with the threat of flood and Chicago was involved in bitter discussion of rent control, but these were matters of local interest. In most of the nation it was a “ low” week, from an editor's viewpoint.

The scarcity of news was thus a large factor in the rapid increase of interest in the story. This increase is shown by a table, based on the Los Angeles Times
Date Total Inches   Page One Inches 
July 4 
July 5  28 
July 6  92  36 
July 7  136  32 
July 8  95  18 
July 9  57  13 
July 10 
Samples of flying saucer headlines


The Los Angeles Herald Express, on July 7, devoted over half the front page to the story, putting it in the same class as V-J Day and the "Black Dahlia" sex murder. The national coverage is somewhat less than the Los Angeles average. The Chicago Sun, not a “yellow" sheet in the usual sense, devoted 194 inches, 60 on the front page, on July 8. The story was displayed with two “end of the world" headlines, an 84-point and a 72-point streamer, both 8 columns.5 This is little less than the V-J Day display. 

The Cleveland Plain Dealer was more representative of the conservative press, with a  peak of 68 inches and a maximum of 18 inches on page one. The St. Louis Post Dispatch, recognized for its sense of news values, did not go above 55 inches, and never displayed the story higher than the fold of the front page. Both papers tended to treat the saucer as a human interest feature and not as news. 

Any such discussion by the press is, of course, a repetition of the concept. Whether the story is based on “ acts" or not, whether it is "true" or not, does not matter; for public opinion is often based not on a thing, measurably objective, but on a picture of a thing, repeated. It is better, perhaps, as Hitler demonstrated with his “big lie,” that the basis of the concept be not easy to demonstrate, allowing for the creative imagination of the teller and the lazy credulity of of the hearer. 

It follows, then, that the use of variation in report is an obvious strengthening factor. The skeptic is deceived by this lack of dogma, saying to himself, “ of course the stories are fantastic, but they have something in common; some common experience produced them." He thus maintains his sense of objectivity and can discuss the matter "rationally." In a sample mass-observation interview 6 it was found that few denied the simple concept, the majority merely attacking details which seemed to weaken the validity of the whole : e.g., “ as big as a five-room house,” "it disintegrated before my eyes." 

Another function of variation is that the individual is not inhibited but can exalt himself by observing some new features of the saucer. The conservative individual, too, is not unduly offended. He may accept the older, “proved” parts of the  concept and reject the new, perhaps more specific in detail.
Such repetition, in all its variations, and the endorsement by the authority of the press are the two basic “causes” of public opinion about the flying saucer. Other forces, however, were at work. 

“Scientific" evidence and speculation were soon brought to bear on the subject, strengthening the authority of the press. A “savant" "sees" one and, headlined, achieves authority far beyond that usually invested in a dairy inspector, which he was. Other “experts” report their observations: a meteorologist seems to give credence to the man-made aspect of the phenomena by denying that they are meteors; an engineer, who turns out to be only a pilot, chases one of the objects, discussing it later in terms of a plane spotter, another form of “expert” ; a priest finds something in his back yard, still hot, and takes three days to admit it is a hoax; the FBI, stereotype of accuracy and dependability,  investigates; physicists explain that “all rapidly moving bodies look elliptoid.”

The photographer presents his "factual" evidence, a series of blurs on a negative. Artists reinforce the concept with Buck Rogers pictures. Historians discuss the appearance of saucers in past years — the strange missiles over Sweden in 1946, something in San Francisco a few years ago. The air force admits one “flying wing," which might look like a saucer but it is still on the ground. 

With few exceptions the experts do not say that the discs exist: The spot on the film might be; the drawing could represent; the shape is possible; history has recorded something. In fact, usually buried deep in the story, is the statement or inference that the expert does not credit the stories at all. But the denial is in terms of the things it denies. 

Such denial merely serves to instill the picture more firmly in the public mind For it is obvious that a denial is as much a repetition of the concept as is an affirmation.8 Especially strong is the denial by the air force, so firmly stated that it must conceal “top drawer" secrets. 

Wit, too, is a denial, making homely the unusual. The homely we can accept. Ridicule also strengthens our belief, clearing away our doubts with the acid of emotion.So we find the saucer joke, the saucer gag, and clever ridicule working with the "straight news" story to make familiar the unusual. The concept having been fixed, interest in it is maintained at a strategic level by relating it to the public tensions of the moment. One newspaper displayed the story between news of Russian aggression and features on compulsory military training. 

Such juxtaposition is, of course, accidental in most cases, but a glimpse at the less responsible press will show how editors can build tension merely by relating other tensions. Such news as that of the atomic bomb, Russia, and our "shell of an army, a handful of 1,500,000 men" is soon read with eyes "big as saucers." By suggestion the public is led to see dangers which may not in fact exist, for example, the chaos which will result if the discs are part of a "foul plot of the Reds," -who are "out for world domination." By juxtaposition the press can suggest without a grain of evidence. By innuendo concept is related to concept, each reinforcing the other, wheels within wheels.10 The deliberate display techniques used by many papers, three of four in Los Angeles, is sound "journalism" perhaps, if weak logically.

We have seen how the concept was developed, how through repetition and the authority of the press and "experts" it became accepted. The pattern has much in common with the creation of Hitler's "Jew" or the manufacture of a stock "Communist." It is the die by which un-American activity committees mold the stereotype "un-American." It is the blueprint of the unsemantic world  of unreason. 

If, as the President's Commission on Civil Liberties has stated, we are in for a period of ogres, of witch hunts, and of jousting with the straw men built of hate, then it seems wise that we study the method by which they are introduced to the public. It might be useful when someone tries to prepare the way for a man on a White Horse. 



Notes

1 See Sofia/ Distance, a Syllabus, University of Southern California.

2 (Citation missing. Deals with story receiving authority solely due to being covered by the press.)

3 During the short span of the saucer story Los Angeles seems to have solved the problem of the "sex-fiend." Cf. Lincoln Steffens, Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, p. 285 ff., the chapter entitled, “I Make a Crime Wave." 

4 Papers studied closely include those of Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Columbus. A quick survey of Atlanta, San Francisco, Dallas, Cleveland, and Cincinnati papers showed no significant differences.

5 72 point equals 1 inch.  

6 Redlands, California, July 10. 

7 Cf. our ideas of "One World," a concept which most accept because it has the authority of age, 8 or 10 years, and because of its generality, which each can interpret. Many, however, reject the details of such a concept, which are its logical projection.

8 "Coca-Cola does not refresh" is almost as effective as "Coca-Cola, the pause that refreshes." Cf. the kidding of product and sponsor on some radio shows. 

9 Cf. the use of wit in anti-Semitism and the deliberate manufacturing of the “darky,"  happy-go-lucky, shiftless. Magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post have well-known formulas for Negro characters. Cf. also the force of ridicule in building the self-stereotype of minority groups as "God's chosen people." 

10 Cf. from the congressional debate on the Atomic Commission : Lilienthal was born in Lithuania; Lithuania is now part of Russia; so, it is suggested but not stated, Lilienthal is a "Red."


About the Author


Herbert Lewis Hackett, 
as a boy in 1929 

At the time of the article, Herbert Lewis Hackett was Assistant Professor of Journalism, Ohio Wesleyan University Delaware, Ohio. He was an instructor in the department of journalism and English, and also taught writing skills training into the framework of an introductory course in sociology. He was the author of several books on writing.

Here's a brief biography by his grandson, Ethan Daniel Davidson:
My grandfather was Herbert Lewis Hackett, born 16 January, 1917, Rangoon, Burma. He ended up back in the States, by the outbreak of WWII. After having earned his PhD in Linguistics from University of Michigan, he was drafted into the Army, commissioned as a Captain, given the assignment of teaching English to German POWs at a camp in Shamrock, Texas. He seems to have gotten into a fight with his CO after hearing of his father's death, and was ultimately discharged; it's my understanding he was a very reluctant conscript anyway. It was while working at the camp that he met the daughter of an itinerant preacher: Sarah Wilborn. Herbert and Sarah moved frequently, as Herbert was a college Professor: Arkansas, Salt Lake, Lansing, Buffalo. Herbert died of a heart attack in Buffalo, 1964.
Herbert L. Hackett, 1957


He didn't seem to have much else to say about UFOs, but used them as an example in his 1957 book on writing clearly, Understanding, and Being Understood:
"Is the report on the facts consistent within itself? This question implies that facts should not contradict themselves. An early report of the flying saucer, for example, stated that it moved at two thousand miles an hour, and that it had a "blister" in which two or three men were observed; yet that speed would make it impossible for an observer to note such details.”




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