By now you have probably heard that the runaway balloon supposedly containing a six-year-old boy was a hoax, according to his mother's admission. The story received hours of “breaking news” coverage on October 15, and has since consumed countless hours of news coverage about the scam perpetrated on the news networks and concerned viewers.
If French sociologist Jean Baudrillard were still alive, I dare say he would not be surprised that a father would allegedly cook up such a scheme, or that he contacted the local news, the police, or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He might even say he’s surprised it took so long for something like this to happen.
As I recently blogged, Baudrillard described our contemporary mediated age as one where the boundary between image and reality has blurred to the point where they can no longer be neatly separated. Where once we might have had clearer distinctions between entertainment and reality, the two have fused, and the 24-hour news cycles and the Internet have helped them come together.
It has never been easier to enter into what was once a rarified space of celebrity: with YouTube and “reality” television, fame is increasingly based on promoting one’s private life rather than on professional achievements. It’s not that there weren’t people who were “famous for being famous” in the past, but we have so many more avenues to achieve instant celebrity now. There are more celebrities and they get famous faster. We likely forget about them more quickly now too.
Cable news is a big part of this equation. In competing for viewers of “fictional” programming and the myriad of other entertainment choices we have now, the news has morphed into infotainment: a hybrid that is a perfect example of Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality.
Baudrillard suggests that hypperreality creates a uniquely entertaining experience, what he called the “thrill of the real.” This thrill is something we might experience when that “Breaking News” banner unfurls on the screen. But the thrill constantly weakens and extinguishes itself unless something even newer happens. So news becomes more about live action excitement than analysis and investigation.
Perhaps that’s why the same networks that pre-empted their regular programming to cover this story for hours later turned on the family by trotting out angry commentators condemning the family and talking with legal analysts about the charges they should face. The news networks sent reporters to dig up dirt on the family and reported that they couldn’t find evidence that the parents worked steadily, and interviewed neighbors and other acquaintances on camera to malign the father’s character.
Let’s face it, the news networks that covered this event got Punk'd (another example of postmodernity where celebrities thought they were living their private lives but were in fact part of a television show) but seem reluctant to admit it. Maybe behind the scenes news directors will see this as a wake-up call about the folly of chasing shiny objects—literally in this case—during a time when they could be covering other more meaningful stories in greater depth. I’d like to think that the next time a story like this “breaks”—and you know there will be a next time—news directors will think carefully about how much attention it really deserves.
Yes, the Heene parents deserve the bulk of blame for breaking the law, and for using their children to fulfill their own dreams of fame. They took advantage of our fascination with the real, the private, and the exciting. While they might not reap the financial rewards for diving into the fishbowl for the rest of us to watch, many clearly have (I believe their names are Jon and Kate).
All of this recalls the 1998 movie, The Truman Show, where Jim Carrey’s character finds out that his entire life is actually a television show, and that everyone in his life has been cast by the producers. Truman is devastated to find out that his whole world is a set.
Fast forward a decade later, and many people clamor to turn their lives into a television set, to convert their friends and family members into cast mates. Yes, money and attention are huge motivators. Baudrillard might add that the “real world” and the “television set” can no longer be distinguished from one another. It could be that many of us feel like life might be more thrilling if someone was watching, and that to matter in the twenty-first century is to be observed by others, a character in our own Truman Show. What other sociological theories do you think might help explain this phenomenon?