Media gullibility and the country that can't turn away

America was transfixed on Thursday last week by the story of an experimental home-made hot-air balloon which lifted off from a Colorado backyard, supposedly with a 6 year-old boy named Falcon inside. As you've no doubt all heard Falcon turned out not to have been in the balloon at all and the whole thing was, it seems, orchestrated by the father who hoped it would help land him a reality TV show he desperately wanted. So all in all a pretty weird story. I mean, who names their son Falcon? But even weirder, in many ways, was the media's reaction. They dropped everything and covered the story minute-by-minute as the balloon floated over Colorado. President Obama was literally giving a speech in New Orleans when the feed was cut and the presenters breathlessly announced the urgently-breaking news of what has become known as "balloon boy". On Twitter, where I first heard of the story, #balloonboy instantly became a trending topic, being talked about by seemingly everyone. For the next couple of hours it was constant coverage, the excitement, trepidation and commitment of the reporters and fascination of the public at large undiminished by the lack of any new news to report.


This is a common pattern in America cable news coverage - the unceasing coverage of a simple story with good visuals. Hurricanes are always a great example of this, as we cross live to reporters who confirm that yes, it is still raining and still windy but beyond that add nothing to our understanding of the situation.

The constant refrain on twitter and TV was concern for the safety of six year-old Falcon, with prayers and speculation focused on his well-being and mental resilience. This concern was no-doubt real, but at the same time completely ephemeral. Falcon was flying through the air in a UFO-shaped balloon, so therefore was worthy of our concern. But this is not how a society shares their concern for six year-olds, it is how a society shares their love of spectacle.

There is plenty to worry about in America if you do care about six year-olds and other children.

According to the Children's Defense Fund, in the United States:

A child is born into poverty every 33 seconds. A child is abused or neglected every 35 seconds. A child is born uninsured every 39 seconds. A child dies before his or her first birthday every 18 minutes. A child or teen is killed by gunfire every 3 hours.

Every year 3 to 10 million children witness domestic violence, and 1 in 12 high schoolers are threatened or injured by a weapon annually. 5.7 million children live in extreme poverty and 8.9 million are uninsured.

But these are not issues that get covered by the news. They don't lend themselves to hours of monotonous footage or breathless reporting from the field. They are too big, too complex, too much of a downer. Better to focus on an individual fairytale story, use up the airtime, get through the day, hope for another spectacle the next day.

The tragedy of America is that it often seems obsessed with ephemera. I get angry at the news media for being so inane, for containing so little real news and analysis, but could it be that a country get the news media it deserves?

Since the hoax came to light the media has been filled with hand-wringing and condemnation. Most commentators are blaming the 'reality-TV culture' because the parents were veteran reality TV weirdos, having twice appeared on 'Wife Swap' and pitched ideas for their own show to several cable channels. But this isn't so much about reality TV culture as news media culture. It seems to be only too easy for lunatics to manipulate an industry ever-eager for spectacle. There's no room on a 24 hour news network for coverage of the German elections (only the world's fourth biggest economy) but a homemade balloon with an oddly-named boy on-board? Scramble the choppers!

The objective of people like Falcon's father is always fame, and when America obliges by making them famous it can only be seen as a winning strategy.