Balloon Boy, TV, and Unemployed Fathers

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I am obsessed with the story of the Balloon Boy, or rather, the story of a grown man who [allegedly] fakes an emergency and convinces a nation that his son is aloft in a balloon over the skies of Colorado.

I watched the entire event live on CNN because I am a typical American who loves a good spectacle. To be fair, I was actually watching coverage of President Obama’s visit to New Orleans. Out of nowhere, Kyra Philips came onto my screen and said, There may be a boy adrift in a balloon. We have the tape on delay just in case something horrible happens.

Too late, Kyra. Too freaking late.

***

Now that most Americas believe the Balloon Boy incident is a hoax, I am trying to understand the why this whole episode emerged into our consciousness in the first place. Frank Rich defends the father, Richard Heene, in an op-ed piece that ran in Sunday’s New York Times. Here are some excerpts that truly resonated with me.

  • There’s also some poignancy in his determination to grab what he and many others see as among the last accessible scraps of the American dream. As a freelance construction worker and handyman, he couldn’t find much employment in an economy where construction is frozen and homeowners are more worried about losing their homes than fixing them.
  • That circus is among the country’s last dependable job engines. More than a quarter of prime-time broadcast television is devoted to reality programs. And so, with only a high-school education, Heene tried to reinvent himself as a cable-ready tornado-chasing scientist. Robert Thomas, a Web entrepreneur who collaborated with Heene on a pitch to ABC for a science-based reality show, saw the “balloon boy” stunt as a sad response to his economic plight. “I think in this case the desperation was too much for Richard to bear,” Thomas said in an interview with Gawker.com. (It’s no less desperate a sign of the times that Thomas insisted on being paid for his interview.)

America, we have a problem.

Here is a carpenter who is locked out of the traditional job market. He attempts to solve his financial problems using the media, his children, and a little ingenuity. I want to know what you think. Is Richard Heene a criminal, a horrible father, or a social media entrepreneur who knew that his stunt would be consumed by millions of people across the globe? Is Richard Heene any different than Jon Gosselin, Tom Cruise, and Kanye West — men who thought they understood the power of cable news, entertainment television, and emerging interactive media sites such as Twitter?

Frank Rich writes, “None of this absolves Heene of blame for the damage he may have inflicted on the children he grotesquely used as a supporting cast in his schemes. But stupid he’s not. He knew how easy it would be to float ‘balloon boy’ when the demarcation between truth and fiction has been obliterated.”

Where do we go from here, readers? Do we applaud Heene’s sense of hustle while punishing him for misusing taxpayer-funded resources? Do we hang, draw, and quarter him for being a horrible father and a lazy dude who would rather get a reality show than get a real job?

Or can we demonstrate empathy for an unemployed father who tries to grab some attention away from Jon Gosselin’s alleged conversion to Judaism?

What do you think?

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