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Robert J. Elisberg

Robert J. Elisberg

Posted: October 20, 2009 10:53 AM

When a Hot Air Balloon Flies on Empty

What's Your Reaction:

So, apparently the Colorado family who swapped their mother on a TV show and then claimed that their son stowed away in their flying saucer balloon wasn't telling the truth. It was just a publicity stunt.

Noooooo!!!!??!! Oh, my gracious, this can't be true. It seemed so...so...so believable.

Color me shocked. Shocked, I say! It was a hoax???!

Of course, the important question in all this has nothing to do with the family. (Which is saying a lot considering the whole, y'know, circus geek quality of the family.)

And the important question also has zero to do with viewers getting fooled by a publicity stunt. (Which is saying a lot considering the whole, y'know, circus geek quality of the stunt.)

No, the important question is -- "What in the world was the national news media doing covering this story all day??!"

(I'm being polite. The question really is, "Why was the national news media covering this AT ALL?" However, since everybody likes the circus, I can understand covering a big, shiny balloon for two minutes.)

But all day??!!

Geez, guys, five minutes was stupid enough.

A happy disclaimer. I didn't know about this story until it was over. Hearing, "The boy may not be in the spaceship" is always my cue to switch radio stations. (I recommend this tip.) Only later did I find out about the big balloon, how his mommy was on "Wife Swap," that he hid in...

Hold on. Wife Swap?? Even before adding in the alien spacecraft balloon, it was obvious that this wasn't something worth covering. Unless you were the talent scout for Barnum and Bailey.

Let's be clear: while this coverage is a ghastly, ludicrous embarrassment to the national media, that list includes the Internet and blogs. And people who actually paid rapt attention.

(Is that a bit holier-than-thou on my part? Yeah, a bit. However, I have been granted dispensation for that since it was -- actually -- just a loony publicity stunt. Maybe next time I'll be the goofball. But not this time.)

But to be fair, as much as people followed the event, and as ridiculous as it was, I get it. I get that people like flashing sparkly things.

But the major national media? What were you all thinking??? Didn't the whole "balloon - spaceship -- Wife Swap" faflooey set off any warning bells? As soon as you heard any one of these concepts, didn't you think, "Hmm, this sounds screwy"? And as soon as you heard all of the lunacy, didn't that highly-crafted investigative Woodward-and-Bernstein sense that got you to want to become journalists in the first place tell you to stop a second and do your job and check it out, rather than just point the camera and gawk?!! It's like tourist journalism.

Years ago, I worked in PR. We once had a stunt with a waterskiing elephant. It got national coverage, but no one interrupted their schedule with a Breaking News update.

I understand that this is the state of news this days. Hear a rumor, report it as news. Hear a fact, and get "the other side" to comment -- even if "the other side" is saying that smog is not really bad for you, but rather a delicious food topping.

I love news. I love good journalism. At its best, it's meaningful, and we grow from it. Fluff has its place -- it's why God created prime time, YouTube and Nancy Grace. But when we see the major news breaking in with non-stop reporting on a balloon spacecraft from a family on Wife Swap, the failures become clear. It becomes understandable that the Bush Administration got away with lying us into a war by contending unchallenged that Iraq had yellowcake. Got away with lying about Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch. Got away with lying that there was any link between Iraq, al Qaeda and 9/11. Got away with lying about ordering torture and outing a CIA agent. Got away with lying that our economy was strong. Got away with lying and lying.

You see, none of this was worth investigating. Not when you can give wall-to-wall coverage by razzle-dazzling audiences with Natalee Holloway, Anna Nicole Smith, Laci Peterson, Teri Schiavo and any other diversion that might come along.

Lest one think this is new, rent the brilliant movie, Ace in the Hole, from Billy Wilder. It's about a nothing event where a man is trapped in a cave, and a reporter turns it into a national phenomenon. You watch in awe, as it builds to a riveting, horrifying, circus-like conclusion, and think it could have been made yesterday. It was made in 1951.

Anyone who points the finger at "the Mainstream Media," however, your focus is deeply misguided. Too much of all media is obsessed with pointless minutiae and instant celebrity presented as if it is All Important.

In the end, all the media will always cover geek stories. The public will always follow them. Fair enough. But even vaudeville knew when it was time to stop. Hint: when a story crosses your desk with the words "balloon," "Wife Swap" and "spaceship," you're supposed to know to laugh at it. This was an embarrassment. Maybe next time it will make someone think first.