Monday, October 26, 2009

The balloon boy: the televised version

FRANK RICH, the New York Times magisterial op-ed essayist, observed Sunday that America's fascination with the "balloon boy" episode reflected a media-driven society with a willing audience seduced by the latest hoax du jour. TV hustles spectacles. Millions of unthinking viewers buy into them. Think not? Oh? If you weren't among the glazed viewers watching an empty saucer-shaped balloon wafting for miles with voice-over, there was something nagging you that Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" was a put-on that, in one form or another, still exists in the tawdry tourist shops along the New Jersey boardwalks not that far from where the Martians landed.

Fantasies are the lifeline of television, from escapist reality shows to the soberly empty helicopter coverage of celebrities heading to the courthouse for still another hearing. That we were hustled by the balloon boy's dad was no more cynical than the meteoric rise of Joe the Plumber as a man hawked as a spokesman for the millions of unrepresented citizens (as well as a handy crowd-pleaser for John McCain.) And as some Americans wanted to believe, Sarah Palin's family was the moral equivalent of Ozzie and Harriet. (Some males went still farther and fantasized about Sarah.)

The fantasies never stop for today's Thumb Generation. Aim the remote at the screen and you may soon find an 800 telephone number that will end your labors and worries. Pyramid schemes abound with the fantasies of overnight riches. We go to war in the Middle East being told that the end of Saddam Hussein will take no longer than a few weeks or a few months - at most. The empty balloon made more sense.

Talk about gullibility. There's also a fellow named Arthur Ray, a mega-promoter of a fantasy that he calls" vision quest" that for upward of $10,000 he will literally roast you with heated rocks in a tent in Sedona, Ariz., to purge you of toxic invaders of your mind and body. His latest venture ended with three deaths among the 21 persons rushed to the hospital by emergency crews. Did some really believe they would survive the ordeal to help them overcome claustrophobia? You bet.

Also, despite the proven lies from the right-wing megaphones, there are still a sizable number of gullible folks who do not hesitate to believe that the earth is flat or that melting icebergs do not affect sea levels. The fiction may be stranger than the truth, but it sells to a wider audience, which is how decisions are influenced in the media. The once sacred network evening news reports are now limited to 22 minutes, some of which are superficially dedicated to whatever fantasies we are expected to believe. (Two minutes for the latest jobless figures? Ninety seconds for the hokum that health care reform is either dead or now ready for passage, depending on which lobbyist source is dishing it out?) And the Sunday morning panels have little more depth than boring coffee klatches. I confess: I don't think George Will, Cokie et al are ready for their own compelling reality show.)

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures upstage the fantasy hours on TV with harsh numbers: Newspaper circulation from April through September this year fell 1o.6 pct. from a similar period in 2008. While news rooms are shrinking, we must await the next made-for-TV journey into la-la land, or at least to the breaking "news" arriving in Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room. Some situation! But I don't expect any attitude adjustments. As Norman Lear pointed out on the Huffington Post, the balloon boy's parents were seduced by the networks into believing that "they are - even if what they dream up to qualify is a hoax - entitled to their 15 minutes."

With today's coverage of fantasies, it seems more like weeks.. During the Halloween season, at least we have long known that Linus's "great pumpkin" was harmless child's play.

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