Monday, October 19, 2009

Up, up and away

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.


G-Ma-Mema said...

This is exactly the reason I don't watch network news or cable news for that matter,(unless I want to see the weather).
This country thrives on sensationalism.

LarryD said...

On Rush's show yesterday, he talked about an email purportedly issued by the Chamber of Commerce stating that they were on board and 100% behind the Cap-n-Trade legislation (which they have been opposed to from the get go), and several news organizations ran with it - and then a couple hours later the email was revealed to be a hoax.

In their eagerness to be the "first with the story", they often fail to do due diligence and discover if the 'story' is even true. I don't watch the news channels ever because a) they're not interested in truth and b) they're more interested in shaping public opinion than reporting what's happening.

Anonymous said...

I'd watch the news channel if I had a TV, but there's a TV over at McDonald's or local hospital waiting room--well, with H1N1 season may not want to be in a healthcare facility waiting room...

First thing I thought when the story went on radio, a fictional story by Robert McCloskey, and then a fictional story about a Red Balloon. Stories like this are just unusual enough that the first inclination is to NOT believe it, and then to try to figure out what makes it believable.

Media may or may've known what was going on, but certainly had a hand in ratcheting excitement. It remains to be seen what exactly was their involvement. For one thing, not all calls to 911 get public attention. In the outcome if it goes to trial, the original publicists should answer for their role.

There should be some distinction between responsible journalism and sensationalism.

There didn't seem to be any comprehensive investigative reporting plans linking media and first responders to prevent investment of emergency services in a hoax getting out of hand,

The police dept apparently didn't have a plan for quickly getting to the heart of the matter, to send helicopters off with a breeze of hearsay without common sense hesitancy that a floating object might not hold a child's weight, or something fishy might be involved.

The father who set off the 'balloon' obviously had an inkling of simple plan to get media involved. It looks like he accomplished a goal of widespread attention.

(The idea itself is not so far-fetched as to appeal to simple people and children; recall Ian Fleming's hit 'Chitty Chitty Bang Band' --many people forget the terror of watching the Pied Piper's enticement of small children) and the appealing lack of distinction between fantasy and reality. The premise of the happy ending employs a tried-and-true technique of concocting something artificially 'positive' (and of
direct benefit to the father).

My guess is that the father had a rather simple and immature idea of trying to impress his kids and appeal to their sense of fun at the same time. His immaturity and irresponsibility prevented him from understanding the extent of repercussions. hence his complaint about the sitution becoming 'convoluted', but you don't know me, for all you know I could be Richard Heene's sister in law, or even some kind of expert--I'm not, just a parent of kids that can't help feel some empathy for the family.

Unfortunately, for the family members involved, the kid's unusual first name is going to continue to mark him 'forever' as the 'balloon boy', instead of 'son of crackpot'. Well, at least until the next big thing comes along.

In any case, the last few days of media news coverage served the purpose of getting people's minds off urgency of national health insurance concerns, expose on torture and thousands of Afghan killings, and aura of general cantankerousness of citizens about undocumented immigrants and other things that cannot be sensationalized.

As above, there seems to be a divergence between media and responsible journalism and the lack of interest in bringing out 'truth', relying on allowances of it to percolate through the lens of time.

As for Bristol Palin, she may or may not choose to use her fame (not infamy, because she hasn't been alleged to do anything criminal) to advance aspects of her life in the future. It's up to her whether she finds the high road and does something positive to benefit her child and society. It won't be easy, but certainly any hue and cry has nothing to do with whether her opinions will be respected. Public 'understands' teen-age pregnancy and bossy controlling mothers.

But, again, this is only my opinion as a parent with children and empathy.

Charlotte (Matilda) said...


I think Red's last sentence refers to Levi Johnston.

Red Cardigan said...

Yes, it does; thanks, Charlotte! :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, for clarification.

Levi Johnston can sell his soul with what his opinion counts, or he may actually grow up someday and take on his responsibilities. For that matter, he may already have sold his good name. In any case, if he chooses to live by fame (or infamy if he courts evil), then his personal measurement will be as fleeting (and as superficial) as those that live for media caresses, as recently evidenced by the sentiments expressed recently when Michael Jackson died. Not that I have any knowledge of his soul, but the public perception was that his life and death was not entirely self-satisfactory. Something to think about with the Nov. 1st holiday.

It is rather interesting to idly consider the fate of movie star offspring or relatives living off a legacy of idolotry of their folks. Is is very different to live off a monetary or public persona inheritance? Hmm.

To go into other opinions on the subject would be to open up the general floor to a dichotomy of expectations for young men and women, a can of worms to be sure.