I don’t know what was worse this past week. The public’s response like Pavlov’s dog the moment that balloon floating through the sky hit the airwaves, the media’s inclination to stop every other story going on in the world to capture the balloon, the subsequent unraveling of a not-too-smart hoax, or finally, the suffering boy at the heart of the story vomiting twice on television.
The moment that kid threw up is the moment everyone should have turned around and walked away. We had a moment there to fix the mirror that was reflecting back to us a most hideous beast. Here was a boy vomiting rather than lie to millions of people about something dreamed up by his lame-brained father, Richard Heene.
We had a chance to step back and decide; this has all gone way too far. The lines between entertainment, news, and reality programming had at last gasped its last breath. Someone made a kid vomit on TV, cameras were there to catch it, and all of America saw it.
When the news came out that it was, surprise surprise, a hoax — the father wanted publicity and fame in order to get a show for his family — viewers pretended to be horrified for a moment before licking their finger and turning the page. Just another day in the wacky world of “everyone is a celebrity for one reason or another.”
The online component to this story was equally bizarre. For instance, by the time I caught up with the story, the balloon had come down and the boy had been “found” hiding in his attic. No one doubted the man or his story. The Twitterers announce the news with links back to stories and people are already commenting on the action as it happens – real life play-by-play. In fact, you could have followed every minute of this story without ever turning on your TV.
The one question that keeps coming up, and always comes up in a case like this, is what they were all hoping to capture by following the balloon in the first place? That the balloon would crash and the boy would die, and we would all witness a live death on TV at last, with no one to stop the cameras rolling?
Did they think there would be some miraculous survival or rescue that could then be replayed ad nauseum to explosive ratings? That was a chance they were all willing to take. It does no good to chastise the media anymore — that ship has sailed long ago. There are no standards in our network news media. Ratings matter more than anything else because ratings drive advertising and advertising dictates high numbers.
The Balloon Boy story is now a enduring joke. Richard Heene is disgraced. But it isn’t out of the question that somehow, in fact, this family will end up profiting from all of this. Maybe they’ll have to cast Richard as the villain, as they have the Jon half of Jon and Kate. Maybe the son, Falcon, will get his own show. Maybe he’ll get a job as a correspondent on Entertainment Tonight. Maybe the whole family will go on Dr. Phil and heal and then do a reality show about their healing. Don’t laugh; you know you can see it too.