Last week the nation sat captivated by the apparent news of a wayward helium balloon squiring a six-year-old boy towards the heavens while a helpless nation watched and officials furiously (I assume) attempted to solve this unconventional problem in a way which would ensure the safety of the young aviator. This is a noble endeavor and to the truly compassionate among us, myself included, was eagerly observed in hopes that the boy would be saved and the problem solved.
Can there be any doubt that had it been a vehicle armed and headed towards a population center such as Washington, DC, we most assuredly would have had an effective military response just waiting for proper authorization. But what was equally as disturbing to me as the fate of the young man was the seemingly endless amount of time that passed with no apparent idea of how to respond in an effective manner. And that does not preclude a peaceful military solution; our military responds magnificently to peaceful disasters and emergencies as well as those requiring force.
But as the man-made UFO streaked across the Colorado sky, with the fear that young Falcon was being held hostage to the winds and a finite payload of helium, no solution was forthcoming. In the end, the problem solved itself as it gently drifted onto a plowed field. It was quickly discovered that indeed no child was aboard and there is no assurance that had he been aboard it might not have had a happy ending. In this instance a child left behind was a blessing.
But, luckily, there was a happy ending. All along, the boy was safely hiding in a box in his upstairs attic. The happy ending, however, was little more than a happenstance. It was not due to ingenuity or cleverness or quick thinking. It just happened.
Now this is disturbing enough and it all too clearly reveals the incapacity of this great superpower to exercise creativity when it comes to solving problems that do not require brute force, although I would argue that our track record there is not stellar either. How in the world are we supposed to deal with the potentially catastrophic impacts of global climate change if we can't even figure out a way to coax a helium balloon safely to earth?
But the way in which this story was treated by the entertainment-driven news media is also instructive and disturbing. The moment it was confirmed that indeed little Falcon was alive and safe it should have reverted to what it was: namely, an entertainment story. Yet there it was front and center on the evening news, prominently placed atop the news stories of the day, more prominent that the 40 or so people killed in the escalating violence underway in Pakistan, a nuclear power in the throes of an internal power struggle between the military and its civilian government over how to respond to U.S. entreaties for assistance in neighboring Afghanistan. Which story is news and which is entertainment?
And there it was taking primacy over continuing Wall Street excesses, double digit unemployment, a resurgent stock market, and the President's visit to New Orleans, where he tried to explain why it is that victims of Hurricane Katrina are still haggling with government agencies over relief monies.
Have we all lost our minds? What is really important here, the boy is alive and has been for hours. Michael Jackson is dead and has been for months. What is the news here?
In an Orwellian sense, we simply substitute interesting (mostly) stories for what should be reserved for new events, pure and simple. How is it that our priorities can be so deftly manipulated? Is it really because it is what we want to know? Or is it because it is what they think we want to know? Or maybe just what they want to tell us?
Why do we not demand, as a society, the right to pure, unadulterated investigative journalism? Why do we not demand, as a society, the right to news reporting? Is this the logical consequence of the death of newspapers? Has the bumper sticker, sound bite mentality embodied in our political system simply taken root in our newsrooms? Has it always been this way? I don't know the answers to these questions but I do believe they ought to be topics for serious discussion.
There are so many issues with such grave long-term consequences confronting us at this juncture that it is simply inexcusable to devote the time and energy to this story that has already been expended, and can there be any doubt that this is just the beginning of an extended three-ring circus about to tour the networks and end up on the New York Times best seller list?
We must get serious soon about addressing the issues of the day, and this nonsense is just filling space. We must start considering the consequences of what we put into the air and not just what we put up in it. Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is far more dangerous than helium in a flying saucer. Every life is important, whether it is the six-year old in Colorado or the dozens lost in Pakistan. That is news, and it is not entertaining.