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'The Fourth Kind' pays for telling a big fib

Craig Medred

The-Fourth-Kind-Nome-Alaska-
Aaron Jansen illustration

Alaska's Fourth Estate has managed to at least slap the hand of "The Fourth Kind,'' the half-assed Hollywood alien-abduction movie that irritated the people of Nome.

Nomeites didn't much like the film exploiting unexplained disappearances of Northwest Alaskans, most of whom likely perished due to exposure to the harsh climate, as science fiction nonsense. The Alaska press liked even less the idea of news stories about unexplained disappearances in the Nome area being used to hype some "kind" of fake documentary.

There wasn't much the former could do about the movie, other than whine. But there was something the latter could do -- threaten to sue.

The Alaska Press Club, in cooperation with The Nome Nugget and other Alaska newspaper publishers and news Web sites, put Anchorage attorney John McKay on the case, and he announced this week that a settlement has been reached with NBC Universal to stop using Alaska news stories, or bogus news stories attributed to Alaska publications, on a fake news Web site in order to promote the movie. Universal will also pay for its past abuses of fact spun into fiction, and fiction presented as fact. The Press Club is getting $20,000 plus a $2,500 contribution to its Calista Scholarship Fund.

Universal is the studio promoting and distributing  "The Fourth Kind,'' a movie filmed in the Balkan Mountains of Bulgaria, which is about as far as you can get from Nome both visually and geographically. About all the two areas share in common are long, cold winters and problems with alcohol. Bulgaria leads the European Union in alcoholics per capita. Many of the unexplained disappearances in Nome are believed to be linked to people getting drunk, stumbling out on the frozen surface of the Bering Sea in winter and dying somewhere out there in the vastness.

Disappearances and unexplained deaths, many involving Alaska Natives, have proven hugely troubling to the legendary gold-mining community of 9,300 now best known as the finish line for the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Fears that there might be a serial killer at work in the so-called City of the Golden Sands led to an FBI investigation earlier this decade.

The FBI spent months checking on more than 24 disappearances and suspicious deaths before concluding that the common tie among all of the cases was not a serial killer but excessive drinking and a wicked winter climate.

The FBI noted the deaths on the Seward Peninsula spanned more than four decades, an unbelievably long time for one serial killer to be at work, and the bodies of people found dead in the area seldom showed any sign of trauma. That is what commonly happens in deadly cases of hypothermia.

Despite these findings, fears of something more sinister than the weather are still felt by some in Nome, and against that backdrop, a wholly fictional movie promoted as if it were some sort of documentary angered many, including Nugget publisher and editor Nancy McGuire.

As part of a campaign to promote "The Fourth Kind,'' an advertising company dummied up stories about alien abductions which it then attributed to The Nome Nugget. McGuire saw those stories on Web site and admits her first reaction was "what the f---?"

She called the Web site and demanded the stories be taken down. The webmaster demanded she send him identification proving she was the owner of the Nugget, apparently unconcerned about the simple fact the stories were phony but attributed to a real newspaper.

"I really was concerned about it because I didn't write these things,'' McGuire said Wednesday. "They were using my newspaper to give credibility to those stories.''

After a second call to the managers of the "Fourth Kind" Web site proved fruitless, McGuire called McKay, a well-known media lawyer in Anchorage. He reached out to touch Universal. McGuire was glad.

"I'm enjoying it,'' she said. "They think they can get away with this because we're Alaska. They don't think of us as having any brains or being upset about what they do.''

McGuire said she was upset as much for Nome residents who have had family members mysteriously die as for her newspaper. Some of them are still suffering, she said, and it now brings back bad memories to have the deaths of their loved ones used to promote a crock of a movie about alien abductions.

"People see it on the Internet,'' she said, "and they say, 'Oh, it must be true.''

It's a troubling commentary on the gullibility of people, she added. Probably only more troubling if you understand that this observation comes from someone alien to Alaska.

"I am an alien,'' McGuire said. "I really am from Mars ... Mars, Pennsylvania. It's north of Pittsburgh. You can find it on the map."

As part of the legal settlement, Universal is making a donation to the Nome homeless shelter in the name of the "alien" McGuire and the Nugget. That, at least, is a good thing, McGuire said.

"They do appear to be trying to make amends,'' she said. Or at least covering their butts.

Unfortunately, as Dermot Cole of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner has already discovered, fixing mistakes in the Internet world is not as easy as simply saying you're sorry. The Internet replicates fiction every bit as well as it does fact.

"The studio says that if it is notified that any of the phony news stories become available in the future, it 'shall take appropriate steps to see that they are removed from the Internet...'," Cole wrote. "But in some ways this is an empty promise. I found the two fake stories attributed to the News-Miner on sites where they had been copied. Universal won't be able to take those down. There are also cached pages that were available earlier this week."

And, of course, who knows what you can get to pop up on Google from sites that have already been taken down.

Contact Craig Medred at craig_alaskadispatch.com.