Most readers remember the photograph that the History Channel released purported to be of Amelia Earhart and her navigator Frank Noonan on a Japanese-held island called Jaluit Atoll. The photo was alleged to have been taken by an American spy after Earhart and Noonan had gone missing. It formed the basis of a recent two-hour documentary that suggested that the two were forced to land in Japanese territory, were captured, and later murdered on the island of Saipan. Shockingly, a Japanese blogging named Kota Yamano spent 30 Minutes on Google to find the same photo in a 1935 Japanese travel guide, published two years before Earhart and Noonan went missing.

What did the History Channel claim?

The photo was just the jumping off point for a two-hour account of how Earhart and Noonan were taken captive by Japanese authorities, imprisoned on the island of Saipan, and then executed and buried in shallow graves. The documentary had eyewitnesses and their relatives who claim to have seen Earhart and Noonan alive after they had vanished. The account also pointed to a government cover-up. Two Marines were alleged to have dug up Earhart’s and Noonan’s remains when the United States military took Saipan during World War II. A pair of explorers found bone fragments at the grave site in 1969. The fragments, inconveniently, vanished before the science of genetic testing could be developed.

The account the History Channel spun was compelling and seemed to have at least enough evidence to be plausible.

What went wrong?

The History Channel, with a team of investigators, was shown to have egg on their faces by a single blogger using Google. So were a thousand media organizations, including this one, who took the account at face value.

The snafu demonstrates an epic degree of sloppiness on the part of people who should know better.

One person who has some explaining to do is Les Kinney, the retired Treasury agent who claims to have found the photo in the National Archives in a formally top secret folder that had been misfiled. How does a photograph from a Japanese travel guide found its way into such a folder?

It was not taken by a spy in 1937, and the two Caucasians in the photo were not Earhart and Noonan.

The problem likely was the wish to believe that an answer was finally at hand to explain one of the great mysteries of the 20th Century. This disappearance of Amelia Earhart, at the time one of the most famous people in the world, has vexed generations of researchers and has created a myriad of theories, including alien abduction. Sadly, it looks like the mystery is likely to remain unsolved for the foreseeable future.