October 29, 2009

Postmodern Theory and the Balloon Boy Hoax

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

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?


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This is an excellent topic because I truly believe that it is all everybody is trying to do. Everyone always want the perfect life no matter who you are you are always trying to change something. Whether your in college trying to get a better job and create a more comfortable life for yourself, or you are trying to make new friends who you can pick and decide when you hang out with them which is like being the director and picking the cast for your movie. people are always doing things to try and make themselves look good like reality shows a lot of times the people act ways that seem like they are not that kind of person called "fake". I don't blame that family they were just trying to get the most bang for their buck, their not to blame for anything.

I disagree with you, I think this family is completely to blame, which is why they re facing criminal charges. They wasted police officers and search volunteers time and energy on a "missing boy" they knew was safe inside their home. I do believe that it does have to do with our society today, with all the reality tv shows we have today, which is probably the reason they were on Wifeswap twice. But I believe there are better ways to get yourself noticed or famous, than lying about a lost son. It didn;t just affect the family, it also affected the people who searched for the this little boy.

I also agree and disagree. There is no doubt that the family is to blame for the hoax, but the media and money has a huge impact also. By watching reality shows and seeing how much their life has changed because of all the money they have really impacts some people's lives. In this case, the Heene parents are so focused on getting their "ten minutes of fame" and about all the money they can receive that they'll manipulate their own children to play along. It's a shame that this little boy had to hide in his garage for hours while search volunteers and police officers were searching everywhere for him. The hoax not only affected the family, but everyone who prayed and looked for the little boy. People were deeply concerned for his safety, and the whole time, his family knew he was safe. It really amazes me how self-centered some people are just because they want money and fame.

I think that the news stream is as much to blame as the parents. People see anything being covered by the news and they feel that they to can be on the news and publicized and given 15 minutes of fame. People are desperate and are not about to sit around waiting for something special to come along and record to give to the news. It is just like those who send prank videos to websites.

It is clear that the Heene family was in the wrong for this hoax, and, whether they do jail time or pay a fine, they will be punished for their mistake. Another point I would like to make is that nobody is questioning the broadcast networks over airing false stories. It seems as though news teams in our fast-paced society are sacrificing the quality of the news just so they can pump out stories quickly. I remember just last year CNN reporting a bigfoot sighting or something along those lines. I guess it's just all about TV ratings these days.

I agree and disagree. It really is sad that the Heene family fixed their "lost son" as a hoax. That's the modern world though. People go through such unbelievable measures just to get their 5 minutes of fame. To actually get a little boy involve in the whole thing though is just self- centered.
I do believe that the media is somewhat to blame. The news teams will report on almost anything just to get more people drawn in. The boy in the balloon was the most viewed news story for a few days, but then as soon as it lost it's popularity, the news went on to covering something else.

very good news posted useful me

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