Just Look Away From The 'Balloon Boy'

In the aftermath of the Balloon Boy story, there are some questions to be answered. Not just the obvious questions like “What the heck is wrong with this boy’s father, Richard Heene?” but also the question: “Why is the media fascinated with stories like this?”

For six hours Thursday, the world stopped as people were riveted to their television sets, watching a runaway balloon that possibly had a little boy inside it. While that balloon was afloat, millions of people were terrified. And just as many people were cynical, making jokes about it and calling Heene a publicity whore.

Who can blame the cynics? The Balloon Boy saga is a classic case of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Or, in this case, The Man Who Cried “Look at Me!” The minute this saga hit the airwaves, people Googled the Heene name and realized what they were dealing with, leading them to disbelieve the idea that there actually was a six-year-old boy in that balloon and lean more toward the theory that Richard Heene was looking for more attention.

By now, we all know the background of the Heene family.  Two appearances on Wife Swap, extreme weather chasers, UFO watchers, a failed pitch to TLC for a Heene family reality show, YouTube videos, and dangerous stunts.

Eventually the story of Balloon Boy became a non-story, as the kid  was found hiding in an attic. But then a new and more troublesome story took hold. Everyone wanted to know about this quirky family and their daredevil, obnoxious father.  Which means Richard Heene, at the expense of his family’s privacy, is living out his dream. He’s a star. Even if for a short time, he’s a media moment, a name that everyone now knows and he’s going to do his best to parlay that into a television show.

After the sensation died down, in the aftermath of all the headlines and special reports and people transfixed to their televisions, the armchair experts come out of the woodwork and ask, "Why?" Why is the media obsessed with this story? Why did they devote six hours to a runaway UFO when there are so many more important things going on in the world?

We can blame the media all endlessly, and blame Richard Heene for orchestrating the whole thing. But sadly, while the media created the atmosphere that allowed the Heene family to become instant celebrities, and Heene himself threw bait to the sharks of the news world, offering them a feeding frenzy, we’re the ones standing on the shore cheering the scenario.

Who can blame us? Each day we turn on the news we get stories about the bad economy, ongoing wars, racism, and general ugliness.  A story like this comes along -- a seemingly absurd tale of a kid floating away in a homemade UFO -- and we’re captivated. We’re waiting for the Disney movie ending where the kid lands safely and he runs into the arms of his worried parents and everyone learns a valuable lesson while we wipe away our tears.

In this case, there was no happy ending. Even though Falcon Heene was safe, we were left with the feeling that our emotions were being manipulated by his father; we, the audience, were just useful pawns in his game of fame.  So of course we keep watching. We were privy to the story from the start, we felt for the kid, we worried for the family and now that it’s all unfolding in such an ugly way, we’ll keep watching even though we’re no longer watching that bait Heene threw being devoured; Heene himself has become the feast.  We’ll follow this story to the end because we’ve already invested our emotion in it.  If we’re the ones buying the papers, clicking on the headline and tuning in to the news, we’re part and parcel of it and, in effect, we’re giving Richard Heene exactly what he wanted. He’s won.

Unfortunately for Heene and his family, off of the media stage this may not end in the way he hoped for. There’s talk of criminal charges being filed and social services investigating the dubious parenting that goes on in their home. Perhaps calling attention to the fact that you bring your kids on dangerous storm-chasing missions isn’t such a great idea.

In the end, this wasn’t so much a hoax as a very public bid by Heene for TLC to give his reality show idea another glance.  I’m quite sure they will. And isn’t that what Richard Heene wanted all along? Now he can join Octomom, Jon and Kate, and countless others in the long, growing line of people who will sell out their children for fame and money.

It is as much up to us to stop watching these train wrecks as it is up to the media to stop giving them attention.