Almost since the moment Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign last year, pundits have speculated as to what, if not an ounce of their own personal restraint, could halt the flood of free media the candidate has enjoyed. Last month, for a brief but tantalizing moment, it seemed at last they had their answer — aliens. Russian astronomers reported receiving a signal in May of last year from a star 95 light years away, calling it a “good candidate” for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The signal has since been debunked, and it may have come from a Russian military satellite. But if it had come from an alien civilization, the effect would have been earth-shattering, right? We would’ve turned our gaze to the stars and wondered, “Might we ever communicate with these beings? Would it make us feel more significant in the universe, or less?” We might even have wondered what these aliens would think of us, as we stand on the precipice of rewarding one man’s cowardice, arrogance and petty cruelty by elevating him to what is, in our culture, the pinnacle of personal success. But we probably wouldn’t be thinking of him at all.
Or would we even care? The networks tend to cover science news when it relates to disaster, or when it can be sensationalized. In 2014, CNN’s Don Lemon infamously speculated that a black hole might have caused the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. But it’s hard to sensationalize aliens, or to convince people that something 95 light years away has any effect on them at all, as that’s largely a personal question.
On the other hand, aliens hardly need to be sensationalized — they’re pretty sensational on their own. Moreover, you could argue that most people don’t think the election will affect them personally, and yet the media still covers it. Perhaps they would cover both.
But if that were the case, we might have expected more coverage of last month’s potential alien signal, which never had much chance of being real, in the same feverish tone with which the Trump campaign was covered back when everyone agreed that he didn’t have much of a chance.
But that tone was absent. Some articles made the rounds on social media, often accompanied by cheeky references to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” On CNN, Anderson Cooper promised coverage of the signal later in his show, but the news got bumped from the program after Donald Trump announced his visit to Mexico that night. Overall, reactions were appropriately sober. Moreover, the discovery of an earth-like planet orbiting our nearest star, which was a huge development in the search for exoplanets and potential alien life, occurred around the same time and generated considerably less buzz.
So, would the news that we’re not alone in the universe have been explosive enough to distract from this year’s dystopian presidential election? Maybe, but there’s certainly no guarantee. Either way, the signal was a dud, and the search for intelligent life continues — both in the stars and down here.
Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.