Media coverage of the Balloon Boy incident follows in a long-standing tradition of bringing intensely personal, potentially deeply moving stories to a wide audience. In 1949, during TV’s earliest days, a little girl named Kathy Fiscus fell into a well. TV networks broadcast live-by-remote from the scene for 27 hours. The world watched with breath held and prayers recited, until heartbroken rescuers recovered her lifeless body.
A fictionalized version of the story was included in Woody Allen’s Radio Days, and a true-life deja vu of it, albeit with happier results, occurred in 1987 when Jessie McClure – then 18 months old – fell into a well but was rescued. Media coverage of the Balloon Boy tale was lightning quick, because the breaking story hadn’t yet ended. It gave TV news crews a massive ratings-bonanza boner because it would magnetize eyeballs to TV tubes: would the little boy die like Kathy Fiscus, or live like Jessie McClure?
As you know, the boy – appropriately named Falcon Heene – wasn’t even in the balloon and only two real stories emerged from this sorry spectacle. The first was the cautionary tale of a conniving douchebag huckster dad – a failed “reality” show freak – who foresaw fame and fortune materializing from the hoax he orchestrated. The second was that the media were suckered like a bunch of gullible rubes taken in by a carny sideshow con artist.
Cue the obligatory ex post facto media analysis about what truly constitutes real “news.” Far better that the same talking heads and media “experts” debate the true enigma: what constitutes “real” now that nothing is?
Media credulity should have been tweaked when it became almost instantly apparent the dad, Richard Heene, had subjected his family to the fish-outta-water TV “reality” series Wife Swap. Surely a man who’d do such a thing to loved ones – for a mere 20 grand – was capable of anything. When it transpired that he had a home movie of the liftoff, media should have smelled a massive rat
Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden was candid about having been hoaxed by the Heenes. They “put on a very good show for us, and we bought it.” Alderden didn’t really have much choice, though. Law enforcement – with actual responsibilities to save lives, if possible – has no option but to pursue this type of matter, even if it may have seemed fishy. To have done otherwise in this instance would be to all but invite the death of a six year old boy without lifting a finger to stop it.
Modern media, however, have a series of choices in such events, as no lives hang in the balance contingent upon their decisions. When a desire to rack up ratings supersedes all ethical obligations, the rage to be the first, with the best video footage, becomes paramount, actual facts and real truth taking the hindmost.
We, the consumers of modern media, cannot pretend to be shocked or appalled by such self-interest masquerading as news gathering for the common good, for modern media have long since given up all pretense of performing that role. We now know – what in hindsight we should have known in our bones at the time – that the same media that swallowed whole the most egregious Bush junta lies about the necessity for war in Iraq – without question or comment for fear of being labeled disloyal by that junta – has no integrity, character or quality that trumps its own self-interest.
We live in an age when print media teeter on the brink of financial ruin, and TV news readers are merely hopped up bingo callers with ever-waning audiences. Media “experts” and analysts ponder the issue as though it were an enigma. Do climbing costs and shrinking revenues doom news reporting? Are the youth too attention-span-challenged to follow a one minute TV report or a quarter page news piece?
Were they in any substantive way truthful, they would admit the obvious, which is the real reason for their decline: they have as much integrity and credibility as Richard Heene. They are hucksters and frauds, more concerned with their own selfish agenda than serving the commonweal they pretend is paramount, but to which they condescend with unconcealed contempt. And contempt is precisely the word, because the audience is presumed to be so dull and uninformed that it cannot tell the difference between truth, or its next of kin, and agenda-driven infomercials trick-or-treating as impartial newscasting.
How else can one rationalize the real news: that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are the single greatest source of news information for a growing demographic that has given up on MSM coverage almost entirely? What a topsy turvy world this has become, when self-admittedly “fake” newscasters have more sway with the public than those cloistered, overpaid egotists who pretend to be the “real” deal, yet are just as false as Stewart and Colbert. But without the fortitude to recognize it, let alone admit it.
A couple of Ashton Kutcher wannabes recently punked the national media by forging a press release that claimed the US Chamber of Commerce – composed of business groups determined to stall all meaningful climate change legislation – had changed its mind and was now foursquare onside in the fight against corporate pollution. Such a drastic sea change should have led inquiring minds to ponder the bona fides of this news, yet venerable news outlets Reuters and CNBC ran the hoax without even the most basic fact-checking.
The White House recently called out FOX News as being little more than the research wing, or communications wing, of the GOP. More “stenographers-for-rent” than actual journalists under the Bush junta, FOX has sicced its big dogs on all things Obama, leading to arguably lamentable resignations, by perhaps decent people, from roles and positions likely of little significance. With a transparent desire to thwart anything and everything Obama does, FOX is now seen by the Oval Office as its prime media enemy. All parties should rejoice. FOX viewers will harden in their belief the network is the last bastion of sanity fighting to preserve a nation under threat, which is the only thing FOX has to sell.
With professional GOP flimflamming like Karl Rove on the payroll, FOX is the dependable platform for today’s Tokyo Rose and Lord HawHaw. As it masquerades as the uber-patriot force behind a subversive journalistic elite, many on FOX daily undermine in the gullible their confidence in the very institution they all deem infallible and ever-lasting, the US government. The most perfect form of government in the history of the world is being threatened by Obama’s secret socialism. Can the Chicken Littles who warn us of an impending, but imaginary doom really claim to be driven by a deep patriotism while they distract us from far more genuine threats? Al-Jazeera has nothing on FOX.
It does not matter that our looming doom is not “real” because that word no longer means “genuine.” The word has been rendered meaningless by misuse at the hands of the self-interested, and the fact that reality itself is now wholly unreal.
In journalism, we have a barrage of people who have brought disrepute to their profession by being caught out publicly doing what their colleagues do regularly without being detected. How much reporting is real, as in accurate and unbiased? Far less than the average news consumer would ever know.