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cultural vandal | 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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