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Art Bell, Heaven’s Gate, and Journalistic Integrity

Special Report

Thomas G. Genoni Jr.

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 21.4, July / August 1997

Following the Heaven’s Gate suicides, the public learned that news of a “companion UFO” trailing Comet Hale-Bopp — a rumor spread predominately by late-night talk radio host Art Bell — may well have contributed to cult members taking their lives in an attempt to “graduate,” as their Web site described it, to a “higher level” and leave Earth in a spacecraft. Bell will tell you he did nothing wrong. The full story reveals it’s not quite that simple.

The Art Bell Show, officially Coast to Coast AM, began roughly thirteen years ago and is America’s most syndicated late-night talk radio program. Carried five days a week on AM stations throughout the country (with a sixth show called Dreamland on Sundays), it regularly features a parade of paranormal oddities.

Theories about a strange object near Hale-Bopp were first made public in November of last year when Chuck Shramek, an amateur astronomer from Houston, called Art Bell’s program to report that a photograph of his appeared to show a large object behind the comet, an object he speculated to be up to four times the size of Earth. The following night, Courtney Brown, a tenured professor of political science at Emory University and director of the Farsight Institute in Atlanta, was a guest on Bell’s show and claimed that three “remote viewers” associated with his institute had confirmed Shramek’s findings and, incredibly, had determined it to be a metallic object full of aliens. As further proof, Brown sent Bell a photograph of the Hale-Bopp “companion” (allegedly taken by someone Brown identified only as a “top-ten university astronomer”) on the condition that Bell hold off displaying the image on his Web page until the astronomer in question held a news conference. (Meanwhile, astronomers analyzing Shramek’s mystery object concluded it was a misidentified star, though Shramek continues to dispute this.) After two months of waiting for the secret astronomer to come forward (time also spent feeding the Hale-Bopp UFO hype), Bell decided to post the secret photograph. One day later Bell was contacted by Oliver Hainut and David Tholen, both professors from the University of Hawaii, who said that Brown’s image was merely a doctored copy of one of their recent comet photos, and they provided a comparison to prove it. The image was a fake.

As one might expect, Bell took a number of steps to distance himself from the very controversy he had spent so much time promoting. Brown, who had enjoyed frequent publicity on Bell’s program, was no longer welcome (to this day Brown refuses to reveal the mystery astronomer’s identity). Links previously advancing the UFO story — including audio files of the November shows containing the early Hale-Bopp “companion” discussions — disappeared from Bell’s Web pages. (Bell says that all of the audio files from those November shows were lost when a hard drive crashed.) Russel Sipe, an Internet expert who maintains a popular Internet site devoted to educating the public and combating the pseudoscience linked to the comet, also noted that when Alan Hale paid a visit to the radio program in early March, Bell “talked about the magnificence of the comet . . . and even seemed to suggest that there was no evidence for anomalous elements surrounding Hale-Bopp.”

Despite the blatant reversal of position, Bell says he doesn't regret having publicized the Hale-Bopp UFO story. “You have to remember I had several sources,” Bell explains. “In addition to Shramek’s photo, I had a university professor at Emory who supplied us with photographic evidence of what he said was true.” Keep in mind this is the same professor who, for a mere $3,000, will teach students enrolled at his “Institute” to communicate with extraterrestrials. Nevertheless, Bell maintains that Brown and Shramek’s evidence constituted “sufficient material,” and he seems unconcerned that his sources eventually proved to be totally unreliable.

What about the possibility that thirty-nine people ended their lives in part because of Bell’s promotion of false information? Bell doubts the cult members incorporated the “companion UFO” story into their mass suicide decision. He says that in the weeks following the Courtney Brown debacle, the “entire fraud was heavily exposed” and that the revelations all occurred two months before the Rancho Santa Fe suicides. And in a further attempt to paint himself as just another innocent reporter at the mercy of his sources, Bell asserted that “the media had it totally, utterly wrong” in their initial reports of the numbers and ages of suicide victims, as if to compare his show’s unsubstantiated and pretentious banter about a massive, comet-trailing alien craft to the act of gathering details during a breaking, tragic news story. Most important for Bell, though, is that the Heaven’s Gate members appeared to have been aware of the Hale-Bopp UFO debunking. The first line of their now infamous Web site reads:

“Whether Hale-Bopp has a ‘companion' or not is irrelevant from our perspective.”

However, the cult’s Internet link to the Art Bell homepage also indicates it’s likely they first heard about an approaching spaceship during Bell’s two-month-long UFO escapade.

But whatever the Heaven’s Gate cult members or anyone else may have done with the information presented on his radio show, Bell feels that is not his responsibility. “I'm not going to stop presenting my material because there are unstable people,” he insists. “That’s what the First Amendment is all about.” Constitutional rights aside, Bell’s wild Hale-Bopp tales have clearly extended beyond the confines of harmless late-night entertainment and have contributed yet another ominous paranormal myth to a public of both stable and “unstable” people regularly misinformed about science.

Thomas G. Genoni Jr.

Tom Genoni is the CSICOP West Coast Bureau Chief at the Center for Inquiry—West in Los Angeles, California. He interviewed Art Bell by phone in March.