Unless you are living without access to television or the Internet, you've probably followed the swift saga of Balloon Boy, which can be summed up as follows:
1. Parents call media to claim that their six-year-old is floating away in a giant balloon over Colorado.
2. Media gets news helicopters aloft; law enforcement gets involved.
3. Balloon lands. Empty.
4. Boy is discovered "hiding" in family home.
5. Boy blurts out the truth, and it transpires that the whole thing was a hoax, done to win a reality TV contract. Boy further blurts out various meals on national television.
6. Law enforcement plans to file charges.
7. Court TV buys the rights to the made-for TV movie.
Okay, I'm jumping the gun with that last one, but numbers one through six are accurate.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this story, lessons about reality TV, publicity-hound parents, the culture of instant stardom, celebrity worship, and the like. But one lesson that needs to be learned (but probably won't be) is how easily the media can be fooled--and the rest of us along with them, especially when they're the middlemen telling us the story.
When those first phone calls came in to Colorado news stations, I think the decision to cover the incident was made quickly. A child, possibly floating above the Earth in nothing more than a homemade balloon, in danger of freezing or of falling out of a flimsy basket beneath it--this would be instantly captivating to television news audiences, especially once the balloon was actually sighted by news helicopters. If the Heenes had concocted a story that didn't involve such a gripping and horrifying visual, they never would have gotten such coverage. This was O.J. in the white Ford Bronco; this was the Louisiana Superdome full of flood victims who were allegedly (but not, as it turned out, actually) being raped in overflowing bathrooms; this was Something Big.
The fact that this was, ultimately, more like Geraldo opening Jimmy Hoffa's vault didn't matter; it was the viewers, the eyeballs, the gripping drama of the unfolding non-story, more relevant and meaningful than any of the real news of the week, or possibly the month, that made it worth the twenty-four hour news cycle. And what a gift to faltering media this kind of story is: first, the spectacle, then the startling new revelations, then the dramatic arrest (yet to come) and the still more dramatic trial (can anybody doubt it will be far behind?). Greta Van Susteren, call your office. Or your makeup artist. Or your Scientology coach. Whichever--but hurry! Viewers won't wait to have this story discussed and unfolded and uncovered and regurgitated and analyzed and scrutinized and evaluated to death, by those media experts who possess that rare but dazzling talent for turning the trivial and the banal into Must See TV.
But if the media doesn't hurry, the interest in the story will evaporate faster than than honesty in Washington. And those media outlets who made this tale of an attention-seeking but ultimately stupid lowlife with too much time on his hands their banner headline for the weekend might just have to consider the possibility that they were duped even more badly than Bristol Palin was by a similarly stupid lowlife who is just as willing to prostitute himself to the press as Richard Heene is.