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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is there no length to which ‘news’ networks will not go for a ‘story,’ to which audiences will not go for a ‘thrill,’ and to which parents will not go for public attention?

Surprise, surprise: the “balloon-boy” saga of late last week was all a stunt, a hoax, a publicity grab by the parents of the supposedly missing kid. Says the Los Angeles Times:

The strange case of Falcon Heene took another twist Sunday when a Colorado sheriff said the boy’s parents had staged the runaway balloon saga as a publicity stunt to score a reality television show.

“There is absolutely no doubt in our minds that this was a hoax,” Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said at a news conference in Fort Collins. Richard and Mayumi Heene planned the caper for at least two weeks, he said, and are likely to face felony charges.

The sheriff added that some entertainment media might have been complicit, but he refused to identify them. One outlet, he said, had already paid the Heenes in connection with the balloon launch.

The Heenes deny wrongdoing.

As the Times points out, this is hardly the first family to use their kids as ratings grabbers:

The trend may have started with Nadya Suleman, the California “Octomom” who underwent advanced fertility treatments and had octuplets. Her offspring will reportedly receive $250 a day to star in a reality show now being produced. Then there are the Gosselin sextuplets and twins, caught in the media glare as their parents’ marriage disintegrated on-camera, turning TLC’s “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” into a ratings smash.

And it appears that such abuse of children is something many Americans are complicit in — the parents of these kids can do their exploiting without a willing audience:

“It’s an utterly unique story,” said Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC’s “Today,” whose co-host Vieira interviewed family members. “It had elements of a child in peril; there was a live picture of it; there was a mystery to it; there were details that continued to develop throughout the course of the day about this family.”

Whatever the outcome, children’s advocates warn that reality-TV producers and news organizations are exploiting kids from exotic backgrounds for higher ratings. In the “balloon boy” case, TV news was rewarded for sticking with the story: As the drama unfolded Thursday afternoon, the cable news networks logged ratings roughly double their usual averages, according to the Nielsen Co. Some of the coverage was deemed so critical it aired without commercial interruption.

Does all of this mean that it’s inevitable that we’ll see more stories like the one of the Heene family and the runaway balloon? Is there any way to put a stop to it? Is there no length to which “news” networks will not go for a “story,” to which audiences will not go for a “thrill,” and to which parents will not go for public attention?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • allochthon

    Soon, The Truman Show won’t be a parody any more…

  • LaSargenta

    Can you say narcisist?

  • Grinebiter

    Hey, it’s been a long time since that movie about a woman who would kill to be a weathergirl.

    One of my harmless little fantasies (I shan’t tell you about the others) is being stopped on our main square by a TV crew who say, Hey, would you like to be on TV? I go, Nope, and they go into cardiac arrest.

  • LaSargenta

    You know, years ago I heard an older female relative say (referring to an article on the sensational side about a grizzly murder) “I never read those, it just encourages them!”

    While there are several logical problems with her remark, I must say, I do follow it. I saw the headline on news.google.com and I didn’t bother to read it. Ditto all the subsequent headlines. If I had to get my news from the TV-feed, then I’d have up a creek as I couldn’t get the talking head to skip it. (Another reason to like print!)

    Only problem is that when one removes all the sensationalist articles — even in a staid and potentially dull paper like the WSJ or NYT, it is astounding how quickly one can read through everything…and how sure I become that there’s more stuff I’m not being told that is actually important.

  • LaSargenta

    Oh, Grinebiter…OTHER harmless fantasies? Enquiring minds want to know! ;-)

  • LISA

    Someone once described it to me as shock and awe

    keep people busy and distracted with bullshit ahd they won’t see what the other hand is doing

    there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark that we give people like this so much attention and fame

  • Accounting Ninja

    What pisses me off was that there were people asking whether this was a hoax pretty much right off the bat and the father was all indignant that someone could possibly think he’d want to go through all that (worrying about his son) for a stunt.
    Riiight. Good one, buddy. I almost believed you.

  • Grinebiter

    Oh, Grinebiter…OTHER harmless fantasies? Enquiring minds want to know! ;-)

    On this site, shouldn’t you be waiting for the film of the book? ;-)

    Actually, though, I meant that some of the others aren’t harmless……

  • Hey, it’s been a long time since that movie about a woman who would kill to be a weathergirl.

    And even back then they were kvetching about the sensationalizing of the media.

    Remember back in 1987 when the media took time out from covering the IranContra hearings and the S&Lgate scandal to give us nonstop coverage of that all-so-important story about the little baby girl stuck in a well? Granted, that must be ancient history for some of MaryAnn’s younger readers but I still remember the impression that story left. And how much the media tried to make people feel guilty for not wanting to lap up every detail.

    Media coverage was considered ridiculously sensationalistic back then and thanks to CNN and Fox News, it’s only gotten worse–which I didn’t believe to be possible.

    No wonder that scene in Die Hard in which the Bonnie Bedelia character punches out the news reporter was so popular…

    And yes, LaSargenta, I too can’t help but wonder what important stories are being neglected for coverage of this kind of idiocy.

  • Cyndy

    It makes me wonder about what made the kid vomit on camera the next day. Who has the kid’s best interest at heart here?

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