Balloon Boy or Barf Boy?

When the dust finally settled on Thursday, Oct. 15th, we discovered something rather ironic. The infamous “balloon boy,” who captured the attention of the entire national news media, was never actually in the balloon to begin with.

Instead, while 6-year-old Falcon Heene sat semi-comfortably in the attic of his family’s home, America was in the balloon. Yes, we were the ones that were actually floating through the Colorado sky.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself one of the lucky ones and move on to another article. But, the fact is, you probably do know what I’m talking about.

In short: a large balloon, shaped like a flying saucer, was being recorded and broadcast by every major news network in America. For a while, we thought young Heene was inside, and we were worried about him. Then, we discovered that he was safe at home, and during a horde of interviews all over the news the next day, we found out that the whole thing was a publicity stunt pulled by his parents for attention, further solidified by a nervous child barfing on national television.

Apparently it had been too long since Richard and Mayumi Heene – loving parents and former stars of ABC’s “Wife Swap” – had been in the national spotlight.

Yes, in the middle of the national health care debate and the reevaluation of our strategy in Afghanistan, our news coverage was devoted almost exclusively to the boy that was not in the balloon. It was literally the only thing that was on the news, and on the Internet when the tweets hit the fan.

What was it about these Colorado hillbillies and their hoax (which they insist was real) that captured our collective attention? Indeed, what does the balloon boy say about America?

Let me suggest to you one possible conclusion: The balloon boy actually is America.

When you dissect the whole thing independently, it really does seem ridiculous that this “news story” captivated all of us. But when you place it in the larger context of American pop culture, it makes complete sense.

Why do we care about the balloon boy? We care because he represents what all of us in the Twitter generation crave: attention. We carefully maintain our Facebook profiles and send witty tweets from our cell phones, and why? It’s simple – we want attention. And when someone like us, who is desperately trying to win the captivation of others, actually gets that attention, we simply can’t look away.

Even if we wanted to look away, we didn’t really have that option; the balloon boy was everywhere. As we checked our daily round of Web sites, it was all over every last one of them. When you look at the results, it makes sense that the media ate this up. Between an hour of the balloon boy and an hour of Sean Hannity discussing Obama’s socialist agenda for the 100th time, which is the average American more likely to watch? The media is selling a product. If a story boosts ratings, it’s all you’re going to see on television.

I suppose we can thank Heene for giving us a day of rest from the usual round of “Jon and Kate Plus 8” divorce drama. But that’s the whole point: it was going to be one or the other. Our celebrity-obsessed, voyeuristic culture has turned what is supposed to be “the news” into nothing more than TMZ on every major network.

This is why nothing ever gets done in our government – we don’t have time to care about health care reform or foreign policy. We’re too busy worrying for the balloon boy’s life and reading tweets from our favorite celebrities. We all have too many reality shows on our DVR lists to catch up on. How are we supposed to find time to band together and put pressure on our elected officials to actually get things accomplished?

There is so much that we should be worrying about. Things like Heene’s bizarre family and Jon Gosselin’s collection of rhinestone-covered Ed Hardy shirts simply shouldn’t be important to us. And yet they’re everywhere and we’re all watching. Either because we actually care or because we’re glad we don’t care, we are all watching closely nevertheless.

Now if you’ll please excuse me, I need to log onto Facebook and add “Reading about the balloon boy LOL” to my list of interests. After that, I’ll be posting a blog about Kate Gosselin’s hair and making a YouTube video about how Miley Cyrus deleting her Twitter account has personally affected me.

Charles Hicks is a third-year religious studies major. He can be reached at cbhicks@uci.edu.