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Taken For A Ride: What Did We Learn From Balloon Boy?

What more is there to say about the balloon boy – other than that he was never actually in a balloon?

Plenty, it seems. Four days after the country’s most overinflated news story, what’s notable is the backlash. Not just against Richard Heene, the fame-seeking father who apparently dreamed up a public relations stunt to rival “War of the Worlds.” No, the real vitriol is against the media. Both the news crews who took to the air just as the balloon did, and our celebrity-saturated culture. After all, Heene had gotten a taste of notoriety when the family appeared on the ABC show “Wife Swap,” and word was, he wanted to give some lift to his idea for a show of his own.

I was as carried away as anyone. Who wouldn’t be aghast at the idea of a child aloft in a helium balloon that resembled an old Jiffy Pop commercial? Even worse was a certain fairy-tale-gone-terribly-wrong aspect (was I the only one who thought immediately of the Disney-Pixar film “Up“?) My own child is just six years old, and for a short while, I watched with a bit of the surreal sense I had in the minutes after the planes hit on 9/11…an irrational conviction that, if the world is watching, surely someone will figure out a rescue. In this case, thankfully, no rescue was needed – unless you consider Mr. Wife Swap’s future, the cable networks’ reputations, and our own fame-obsessed values.  

In the cablers’ defense, the runaway balloon was made-for-TV. It had suspense, pathos, man-against-nature, and even a kid named Falcon. As anyone in television (or in PR) knows, it’s the visual that makes the story. So, I don’t blame them for airing the whole thing as it was…um, unfolding. Could they have used more skepticism in checking out and following the story? Sure, but the sheriff, FAA, and first responders were there already. This is live TV, folks. As Howard Kurtz explains it, “you show the process live and scramble around to figure out whether it’s true.” 

What’s tougher to defend is the attention the family, and various “experts” received after story ran out of gas and a hoax was suspected. Who can forget the video of poor Falcon blurting out the truth, then vomiting on live television, as his parents continued the interview? Sickening, yes, but maybe more real than any reality show I’ve seen lately.

Which brings us to what Gawker calls “the sorry state of a reality TV-addled culture.” First, the Octomom. Now, another overblown production. How far will people go to try to grab their slice of fame?  And, how weird is it that people actually feel entitled to that slice? 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a reality TV fan. I’m addicted to “Top Chef” and have been known to tune into the “Rachel Zoe Project,” possibly the greatest guilty pleasure of all time. But, those programs showcase people with real skills…or, at least, great clothes.

Blaming reality TV for the balloon-boy hoax is like blaming the Internet for spammers. Nor do I agree with those who say it’s the Web that was full of hot air. For me, believe it or not, Twitter was a bright spot. The #balloonboy updates were faster than the news, and when I spotted the “Wife Swap” bit on someone’s feed, I cut my losses and went back to work. Plus, there was that built-in community of users who were also swept up in the moment – sharing fear, horror, and skepticism. Score one for the social Web.

At the end of the day, maybe we’re left with nothing more than a few days of self-reflection, anger towards the waste of public resources, and a very funny SNL bit. As my former boss, an ex-Army guy, used to say, at least no one died.

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