Balloon Boy is your fault

balloon-boyThis is your fault.

Certainly, there’s a lot of blame to go around, but most of the people who are pointing fingers at the Henne family tonight should turn off their TV and look at the screen’s reflection, because that’s where the real blame lies.

Oh, sure, you feel duped. You prayed for the boy. You prayed for his family. You invested your emotions in hoping for smooth landing. I was right there with you. I climbed off the gym machine and stared at the TV and asked myself, “How could such a horrible thing happen?” Within three hours, it was easy to determine how it happened, and it occurred to most right thinking people that it is mostly your fault.

And so, I’ve come up with a list of people who are not allowed to be appalled that Richard Heene allegedly pulled off one of the most disturbing and heartless hoaxes America has seen in ages. That list includes:

  • Anyone who has ever watched reality TV programs like Survivor, Super Nanny, Wife Swap, and Big Brother and then watched them again
  • Anyone who has ever actively participated in the exploitation of a person because they seek television celebrity
  • Anyone who spends more time reading TMZ than CNN
  • It’s these people who create a market for Richard Heene. The nation’s garbage-consumers create incentive for people who want to be famous. The people who TiVo reality television encourage a brand of entertainment that 20 years ago would have been reserved for the final 30 seconds of a local news broadcast. Instead of the water skiing squirrel kicking the D-block, Jon and Kate are sitting in the A-block like real news. These are people who are only famous because they had eight kids and were willing to exploit them on national TV networks. No longer do we have to wait for someone with talent, ingenuity, or creativity to inspire us. Now, we only wait until the next fall season. Then we can look at our televisions and revel in collective shadenfreude.

    Let”s be clear. You don’t care about the people you watch. You call it mindless entertainment, and you conveniently ignore the exploitation. Jon and Kate, like Henne, Octomom, and even Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, are freaks. They are people who 20 years ago we would’ve pitied, belittled, or jailed. Now, we give them attention, fame, money, celebrity, and moral justification for their personal brand of social dysfunction.

    And you eat it up.

    Oh, sure, maybe some of you don’t. I’d like to think the people who read here are above spending more than a couple of minutes devoted to the lives of people who are only on TV because they lack the requisite shame to eschew money and celebrity in favor of pride. And don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if there is no such thing as good reality TV. Look at the wildly successful Fantasy Factory (which, I have to point out, I pimp here because I know the EP on the show). There’s Mythbusters. There’s Top Chef. It’s all decent entertainment. It’s reality TV. But it’s not the type of thing that is encouraging grown men to commit heinous acts against their family and a nation full of sympathetic parents.

    Let’s just be honest with each other. How would you look at me if I cared so much about getting famous and getting on TV that I exploited my children, encouraged them to lie, woke them up at the crack of dawn to throw up on TV? How would you feel about me if you learned I actively sought out vulnerable people with the goal of making them look horrible just for ad revenue?

    Agreed, both of the above are disgusting. Now, ask yourself this: How would you feel if you found out you were the reason I was doing these things? How would you feel if you knew these horrible things wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for decisions you made–decisions to watch the shows, to let your family watch the shows, and to support news outlets that treat the reality TV productions like news.

    A couple of months ago, my buddy Colin recommended I watch American Cannibal (you can find it easily on Netflix). I now make the same recommendation to you. Here’s why. The documentary initially set out to follow two TV writers as they went from pitching their ideas to a having finished product. Along the way, the writers got desperate and started pitching reality TV ideas. The bite they got was not the one they wanted, but because people eat up reality TV, the writers and producers went forward, no matter the cost.

    I never had much love for reality TV before, but the past year or two have helped me understand reality TV is not just an inane and mindless bit of entertainment. It isn’t neutral. It actually hurts. It hurts our culture, our country, and our neighbors.

    So, today as you sit back and point fingers at Richard Henne and berate him for being so heartless, take a moment to remember that you told him it was okay.

    That is…you told him if he managed to get on TV…you’d watch.

    Brad Willis

    Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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    25 Responses

    1. The Wife says:

      You know, I was so busy at work, that by the time I figured out what had happened, the whole story had unfolded. It was four hours that I don’t regret having spent focused on something that matters.

    2. CJ says:

      Couple of thoughts…

      1) Don’t quite get why Survivor is in the first list of what we’re to believe are evil reality shows. It’s still one of the best on television and doesn’t rely on the kind of performances that the other shows do. Frankly, even a show like Top Chef is worse because it’s a show that can be manipulated by a big personality (be a villain and the producers can make sure you stick around longer).

      2) I’m especially amused that you suggest it’s bad to read TMZ but not CNN, as though they’re different. Perhaps you missed who scored the first national interview with these attention whores. Yeah, it was CNN.

      3) Finally amused that a sheriff who arrested illegal immigrants is on a list with Jon & Kate, the Balloon Boy family and Ocotomom. That’s probably the funniest part of this.

    3. Jay Greenspan says:

      Just throw this little tidbit out there. We’re a hyper-busy society right now, with limited amounts of time for news intake. Last I checked we had some pretty serious — and complex — problems to deal with. However you got to the point where you’re following a story like this, maybe you ought to step back and consider getting some information on something that’s perhaps a little more important.

      I just don’t understand how this ends up being the story of the week.

    4. Bill says:

      A rather simplistic take on what happened this week.

      This was not a problem with “people”. It was merely a reflection of how society has doled out resources and attention almost since the dawn of time.

      I did like the bizarre take on “Anyone who spends more time reading TMZ than CNN.” First off, I guess you’re referring perhaps blind viewers since most of us watch rather than read CNN. But as another poster stated – it was CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that hyped this story. TMZ most likely would have been far more suspect of the story and would have taken the p*ss out of it as they say.

      The fact is local news channels have chased the “if it bleeds, it leads” style of news that was featured here and before that newspapers in the twenties chased these kinds of stories the same way.

      More importantly, did you ask yourself why law enforcement jumped all over this. Why an estimated 100 officials from various agencies, two Chinook helicopters from the National Guard and the FAA were involved for several hours. I’ll tell you why. This kind of exposure is how they think they’ll get attention and funding. And it sure beats working a beat in south Chicago where kids can’t even walk to school safely.

      This is a societal problem about priorities and it has been going on forever. It’s a problem for sure. But don’t blame viewers. They didn’t create this story. The news media and law enforcement did.

    5. otis says:

      Jay–I tend to agree with you, and almost 100%. That said, when the balloon saga first began, it was a legitimate news story and something that easily captured the nation’s attention. So, when the networks picked it up and went after it, I didn’t fault them (although there could’ve been some restraint in the ensuing days about how it was stacked in the shows).

      Which brings me to CJ…I’m on record about CNN here more times than I can count. It has an unsettling fascination with celebrity news. That said, as I mentioned above, I’m not going to fault the network for the Henne get. I wouldn’t expect you to defend TMZ, though. And sad as it is, there are people out there who get more of their news from TMZ, Inside Edition, and Entertainment Tonight than CNN, MSNBC, FOX or whoever you like to watch. Those are the people I’m talking about (although you probably knew that).

      I’m not picking at the folk hero sheriff’s politics. Even if he were rounding up dogs and nuns, he would still be an attention/media whore. That’s what makes him an easy target.

      And I’m sorry I insulted Survivor or suggested it requires the kind of performances, villains, and producer manipulation of all the other reality TV shows. For me to do that would just be silly.

    6. Poker Shrink says:

      Otis–I tend to agree with you, and almost 97% of the time. Jay–maybe 95.4%. In this case, which is just another case of the same old case, I just can’t blame the “news” media enough. They always argue that they are just providing what the public wants. Well last time I checked I qualified as the public (and with high disposable income) and I’ll bet you is one of dat public too yet I can go on record as not knowing squat-diddley about the ballon boy or his daddy or giving a rats ass either. So where is the programming for me?

    7. pokerpeaker says:

      I thought about writing the same thing on my blog, basically because the day it broke, it took up my whole afternoon and part of my evening. I don’t apologize for the initial coverage…it was an incredible story, even if it turned out to be false and, as we just found out tonight, an outright hoax.

      But to me it seems to be a copout to blame reality TV for an idiot’s stupid decision. I honestly hate reality TV as much as anyone, but this is sort of like blaming serial killers on Doom or any number of shooter games. You’ll find any number of people desperate for fame, and while reality TV makes it easier for idiots like the Heene family to get there, they already used/abused other mediums as well, including the Internet, which provides a way for you to make a living (if you want a laugh, check out a YouTube video the family posted).

      This is one man’s deluded thinking. No more and no less.

    8. otis says:

      Peaker…it may be that I didn’t state myself clearly enough. I’m hypothesizing that without a market for reality TV (ad revenue driven by mass viewership)there would be no incentive to produce reality TV, and thus no incentive for people to try to get on reality shows by any means necessary.

      I don’t mean to absolve Heene. He is, no doubt, an extreme case. And, yeah, if it wasn’t reality TV, he probably would’ve been nuts anyway.

      I’m simply trying to get people to recognize that support of the reality TV industry is a tacit support of a lowest common denominator form of entertainment that tends to exploit people for profit.

    9. Aaron says:

      CNN, MSNBC, FOX, HLN, etc. are not news channels anymore, they are news commentary channels now. The only time they normally do “news” is when it’s a big splash like this, or a speach they can then put their commentators on screen to talk about it and promote their shows.

      Reality TV is expoitive, but there has been exploitive TV shows on TV for years. The dateing game and the newly wed show were low key, but still exploited the people on the program.

      I am not sure why you are blaming TV for societies problems, TV is a reflection of society, and is driven by society. Sure it makes you want to buy things, and helps drive fashion etc., but if we didn’t want the medium it would be off the air quick as lightning.

      This is the same argument used to ban books and music. Pretty weak.

    10. Aaron says:

      By the way, are you blaming us watchers of reality TV for ruining the news, for ruining TV, or for wasting your afternoon as you sat rivited to the balloon boy story?

    11. dave b says:

      I agree with Aaron; CNN is not news.

    12. otis says:

      Aaron…you may have missed it…but you wrote: “TV is a reflection of society, and is driven by society. Sure it makes you want to buy things, and helps drive fashion etc., but if we didn’t want the medium it would be off the air quick as lightning.”

      That’s exactly what I’m saying. If people didn’t watch reality TV, it would be gone, and that might not be a bad thing.

      And if you read closely, mine is not at all the same argument as used to ban books and music (which I’m sure you know I would fight until I couldn’t fight anymore). People who argue against books and music say books and music CA– USE people to act in deviant ways. I’m arguing that reality TV creates a market incentive for people to do so.

      There is a difference.

    13. StB says:

      I now hang my head in shame for watching the Amazing Race last night. My penance may be to delete all episodes of Tool Academy from my DVR.

    14. CJ says:

      Otis: You miss my points.

      My point isn’t to defend TMZ. It’s to remind you that CNN/MSNBC/FNC are really no better than TMZ anymore.

      And my point wasn’t necessarily to defend Survivor… it was that I couldn’t understand why Top Chef was pointed out as the “good” kind of reality TV when it relies on the same came of viewer manipulation to succeed… the viewer manipulation that the balloon boy family needs to succeed.

    15. Aaron says:

      Brad. I know you would fight against banning books and music etc. However, your cause to versus incentive to be an idiot and do stupid things argument is semantics. Either way you are blaming the medium instead of the people. People have done stupid things with or without a camera since the dawn of time.

      No one has to watch Reality TV, and no one made you watch the balloon boy news coverage instead of doing something productive. I think you feel duped and ashamed that you got sucked into the TV coverage of balloon boy and now you are trying to find someone to blame so that it isn’t your fault.

      And StB, the Amazing Race is the best reality TV shows out there, feel no shame. However, watching Tool Academy makes me want to mock you for some reason.

    16. Jay Greenspan says:

      There’s a sense in many of these threads that the news media is totally broken. Bullshit. Total and complete bullshit. While these may be the worst of times in many respects, these are also the best of times, with a number of outlets providing outstanding coverage of the important stories of the day. And finding the good work isn’t hard, you just need to be in the market for it. For example, I think the diversity and quality of reporting on the financial crisis was something the media could be very proud of (WSJ and NPR, in particular).

      One reason the reaction to this story hit me particularly hard is that I was engrossed in some in-depth articles on the state of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I challenge anyone to read the entirety of George Paker’s article on Hollbrooke and Afghan policy (15k words) and not get frustrated over the media handling of balloon boy.

    17. Aaron says:

      Jay-I don’t think anyone mentioned WSJ or NPR. It seemed to be pretty specific to cable news and network news (Today show et al.). You are right that NPR and many news papers are doing a good job of covering the stories of the day. From your last line I would say you are frustrated about the same news outlets as we all are.

    18. Jay Greenspan says:

      The last line of my previous post was unfortunate. What really frustrates me is that given the available choices, people opt for the crap.

    19. otis says:

      If anything, I have people with valued opinions talking about it. Which is nice.

    20. pokerpeaker says:

      Otis, I definitely agree with your response to my comment. Reality TV is the worst kind of entertainment. It really reminds me of paying $1 to watch a girl diddle herself behind cracked glass.

    21. CJ says:

      Oh, and for the record, my station lead with the Balloon Story at 5pm CT… but at that time, the boy had still not been found.

    22. Recently read an interesting piece by Lakshmi Chaudhry from a couple of years back called “Mirror, Mirror On the Web” which seems to make a similar case for how destructive this yearning for fame — particularly as facilitated by the ‘net — is to our culture.

      If yr innersted:

    23. emme says:

      I was on vacation when this happened yet still heard about it. How could I not? We had stopped for a beer at a place with wi-fi. My first reaction was, “Yeah, right”. We saw a photo of the balloon and it did not seem feasible.

      Later, when in the hotel, we again saw the story but now it was a circus. They were now fashioning the story to support the theory that this homemade flying saucer could actually fly away with Falcon (priceless).

      What I see here is a media desperate for a sensational story, law enforcement tripping over themselves for “face time”, and children being abused by their parents. I can tune out the media and LE but not the fact that these children were misguided and manipulated by their parents. Where’s the public now? Why are they not outraged about the treatment of these children?

    24. Lee Jones says:

      What you said, Otis; what you said.

      Regards, Lee

    1. October 18, 2009

      […] I was planning on writing a small diatribe on why this story pisses me off and that, in and of itself, annoyed me because I know by commenting, I’m giving the Henne family exactly what they want – a few more minutes in the spotlight. Thankfully, I have friends who are not only better writers than me, but who also occasionally beat me to the punch. So if you want to know how I feel about the Henne’s, do me a favor and read what my buddy Otis has to say on the subject. […]