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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a White Bronco!

Thursday, all of America was distracted by a bright, shiny object. For two hours, every major news source followed the slow progress of a homemade blimp, and reported with very little skepticism about the 6 year old boy riding within it, and America watched. And what did we watch? A shiny balloon. A balloon with, we were told, a boy inside of it.

Sure, the reporters told us, it wasn't a certainty that the boy was inside the balloon. But here's the balloon anyway, shutting down airspace and hurtling through the atmosphere. Schrodinger's cat type stuff--we can't see inside, so there's no way to know for sure, but look at the shiny object, and visualize the poor 6 year old child inside of it.

Apparently, no one bothered to look--really look--for the boy, who was hiding in a box in the attic of his Fort Collins, CO, home as if performing an abridged version of The Diary of Anne Frank, minus Nazis. No, the boy needed to be in the balloon, because who wants to spend an afternoon staring raptly at television images of a balloon floating through space, no matter how interesting Wolf Blitzer makes it seem, unless there is a precocious 6 year old inside of it?

I don't really fault the parents for the absurdity of this Thursday afternoon. I mean sure, having a dirigible in your back yard is irresponsible parenting, at best, but most parents do equally irresponsible things (my parents used to throw me in a trunk and drive me to drive-thru movies, just to avoid paying my admission, for example), and most of those things are not nearly as (frankly) cool as building and maintaining a flying apparatus, then storing it the back yard.

And I don't really fault the emergency response team. They did their job. They followed the shiny object, they secured the shiny object, they prepared to rescue the imaginary child inside the shiny object. Task-oriented. That's what emergency response teams should be. Critical thinking should be limited to the task, and not to the media circus surrounding that task.

Some blame rests with the investigative team, all of whom interviewed the only eyewitnesses to the launch of the 6-year-old-boyless balloon. Falcon Heene's older brothers. The elder brothers all insisted, time and again, and with unanimous consistency, that little Falcon had been inside the balloon when it slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of ratings gold. But apparently it didn't occur to those investigators to thoroughly search the Heene residence.

Most of the blame for the Day America Stopped Working and Watched a Balloon, As if Suddenly Everyone Understood American Beauty, rests with the media. The media, which are so concerned with mini-narratives and storytelling that they are incapable of actual reporting. The media, ratings-starved and secretly hoping for another Jon-Benet, another Columbine, another OJ. The media, which should have taken a moment to reflect on this:

If a 6 year old kid is flying around in a helium-filled balloon for 2.5 hours, he's dead from asphyxiation. It is therefore morbid and perverse to hype the flight of a balloon carrying a 6 year old dead boy, and show unlimited coverage of what amounts to the child's airborne coffin.

But! It didn't occur to the media that the kid, if aboard the mini-zeppelin, would be stone dead within an hour from asphyxiation since HELIUM ISN'T OXYGEN. Or at least it didn't occur to the journalists at 9 News out of Colorado, which was the feed most networks relied on for their breathless "OMG It's a little boy soaring above the earth" coverage. It occurred to me. It probably occurred to a lot of passive watchers of the potential tragedy. But to the intrepid journalists of 9 News, too busy shaping the 'narrative' of the story to be bothered with the facts of it, not one of them seemed to consider the difference between a kid surrounded by oxygen and a kid surrounded by helium.

Around the second hour of 9 News' determined coverage of a childless balloon's progress across a small swath of Colorado, producers apparently had the bright idea to call in an expert of some sort, to give the on-air talent someone other than each other to jaw at. The expert--maybe he was a doctor? A physicist? A balloon-animal clown? I don't know! I should work for 9 News!--casually mentioned that if the child was in the balloon, and if he was not in a compartment separate from the helium of the balloon, he most likely would be dead. The expert dropped this little nugget of mortal clarity while answering one journalist's question about the kid's chances of hypothermia (the journalists had spent most of the balloon's flight discussing the prospect of little Falcon's body being deep-frozen); when the expert brought up the more likely, obvious scenario of asphyxiation, the journalists looked as if it had been they, and not Falcon, who'd been hit by sub-zero blasts of air.

I'm not kidding. The most obvious fact of the whole situation, and not one journalist had thought of it. The expert mentioned "asphyxiation," and you could quite literally see the on-air talent go cold. One of the anchors even said, hastily, "We'll be cutting away when the balloon lands, because we don't want to show a dead child live on the air." At no point in the previous hour had that statement been made (to my knowledge, anyway. And it was a frequent refrain from that point onward:"We'll cut away. Respect for the family. You don't want to see a dead kid, do you?").

When they mentioned hypothermia in that first hour, the reporters seemed disingenuous, as if they knew it wasn't a possibility but wanted to play with the idea just to keep the audience concerned and watching. Until the expert said 'asphyxiation, the journalists (anchors, on-air talent, whatever) had been presenting a tragedy-deferred type story, where the denouement would be on the ground, cut and dried: if the balloon crashes, the boy is dead and you have a sad story; if it lands safely, the boy will pop out in tears but alive and you'll have a happy story. At no point did it occur to the journalists that the story was already over, and they'd been reporting on a floating grave.

Once the balloon landed and it was revealed that no one was inside (and, btw, they did NOT cut away, as promised, but doggedly followed the visuals as the rescue team secured the balloon), a new narrative twist emerged: the boy had fallen from the balloon before anyone had started tracking it. The "Little Falcon died before we had a chance to figure it out" narrative went on for a while.

A grid search began. Interviews began. The media dug deep, found out the Heene family'd been on "Wife Swap," and "Storm Chasers." Found out this fact, found out that fact, dug up everyone who'd ever known the family, put them in front of a camera. Pushed and pushed the possibility of Falcon being dead long before the media ever got hold of the story, as if deflecting the responsibility of there even being a story. As Vonnegut would say: No damn cat, no damn cradle. No damn kid, no damn story--unless he was dead before we got here. So watch this interview with the psychic mom from 'Wife Swap.'

And the kid was, all the while, in the attic of the family home, not too far from all the cameras and the reporters and the investigators and the interviewees.

The story, as small as it was, turns out to be this: A young boy did something he thought he'd be punished for (set loose his father's weird UFO-shaped helium balloon), and hid in the attic to avoid punishment.

But what really happened was this: a desperate media turned their collective backs on the simple story, and went bold, creating elaborate fictions out of a bright, shiny object.

And of course America--me included--followed the bright shiny object because that's what Americans have been taught to do. We know the story is always in an attic in a box, terrified of discovery, but we're so used to looking at White Broncos that we'll follow the bright shiny object every time. Then hate ourselves after.

Hey, how's Afghanistan going? Who cares--Iraq is much brighter.

1 comment:

bdpeace said...

I called that one early. Best hide and seek win of his life!

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