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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Self Shelf: Balloon boy and the decline of western civilization

Published: October 30, 2009
Section: Opinions

The stake was driven in poorly. Trembling in the prairie wind, the stake finally gave way to the unbearable weight of the balloon, which floated into the uncertain autumn skies.

The parents rushed out of the house to find their youngest child gone, trapped in a runaway weather balloon–alone and frightened–fate fading in the fickle wind.

What a fantastic news story! Millions of viewers were raptly at attention for the fate of young Falcon as he floated above the thousands of cameras that tracked his every move. The up to the date coverage is more breathless than the reporters. Did something fall from the balloon? Where is it headed? What’s going on?!

If only someone had really asked the final question. No one really knew but the media ran with a story that overran every other story of the day. And in the end, what did it all lead to? Little Falcon was hiding in the attic. As it would later turn out, little Falcon was actually acting on orders from his parents.

The poor child’s honesty when asked why he hid when everyone was calling doomed his parents’ ill-conceived plan. However, the farcical ending of this multimillion dollar media bonanza is not the subject of this article. Instead, it is about the values which the ridiculously disproportional coverage of this event represents.

The date of Balloon Boy’s imitation of the boy who cried wolf was October 15th. On that day, there were bombings and a full-scale militant attack in Pakistan. Ireland’s prime minister ratified the Treaty of Lisbon, a treaty that would expand the power of the European Union.

In the United States, those living on Social Security took a hit when cost-of-living increases were cancelled for this year. It was the first time since 1975 that Social Security payments did not rise to meet with the times. There were a myriad other stories which affected far more people than Balloon Boy.

However, not only did these stories not get equal attention–they did not get real attention whatsoever. Balloon Boy’s reenactment of the movie “Up” monopolized the news like a full-blown celebrity breakdown. This is the problem with this tale. It was not the coverage that bothered me, but the way in which the coverage buried other more pertinent stories.

If I’m keeping track of the war in Afghanistan, the story of bombings in Pakistan is important to me because it shows instability in the region. If I keep any track at all of the European Union (which I should), the news of the Lisbon Treaty is much more important to me than a six-year-old who fell up the proverbial well.

If I’m living off of Social Security in the United States in a miserable economy and there’s a sudden cut in the payment I receive next year, it’s quite important. But what was I doing? I was watching about Balloon Boy!

This is the way the media has been characterizing the news for some time now. The complaint that there is sensationalism in the news is neither new nor searing. Everyone knows about it, but it is time that something is done about it.

Britney Spears has received more airtime in the past decade than the fall of the U.S.S.R. Celebrities and human interest stories, which once had their own section of the news, have come to dominate it.

Sensationalism sells and no one knows that more than a media that is trying to maintain relevancy in face of the Internet. It’s perfectly fine CNN to poach the occasional headline from TMZ but there’s no reason that these stories need to push other more pertinent stories out of the way.

Life is not a reality TV show. News outlets have an obligation to inform their viewers about events that affect more people than Lindsey Lohan’s latest DUI.

The problem with this lack of substance in the news is that it is hurting and will continue to hurt the knowledge of the general public. I realize that this idea is also not new but I would argue that right now is a key turning point in the struggle to inform Americans.

The newspaper industry teeters on the brink of becoming obsolete. Few would disagree that most newspapers’ information is much more substantive than their flashier media counterparts. Their decline, as I have spelled out in a previous article, is a serious problem. Their television and internet scions simply don’t live up to the lofty tradition of their forebears.

In the beginning, news first strayed from newspapers to the radio. The news on the radio was not really all that different from the newspapers in substance. However, as producers realized that people were attracted to flash than substance, a declination in the quality of news began.

On radio, this wasn’t too much of a problem as people still generally read newspapers as well-radios allowed them to keep up with breaking news better than previously but it wasn’t their only news source. After radio came the rise of television.

The first television anchors, having been brought up on radio during World War II, when real news really mattered. The momentous events of the middle of the 20th century brought such titans of the media as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

However, even with this golden age of news came a lead lining–a television report just couldn’t reproduce the in-depth coverage of a newspaper. Also, there was a gradual refocusing of media attention upon more appealing rather than more important stories.

By the dawn of the 21st century, this trend was impossible to ignore. Only when a truly momentous news event took place did the media drop the latest circus of sensationalism for a matter or true importance. The dark fruit of this change have only started to surface.

The first effect is a lack of general knowledge on the part of the American public. Some would argue that this cannot be proven as I cannot state statistics from American publics past.

However, I can without any lack of candor state that the youth in many other countries know more about our country than our own youth. The media could do something about this, but does not in the name of ratings.

The worst part about this creeping change, however, is the fact that the media is becoming weaker and weaker by the day. The less it reports on substantive news, the less likely it is to uncover the next Watergate. Already, the media has dropped the ball on the Iraq War.

Perhaps if more scrutiny had been focused on foreign policy than Angelina Jolie’s latest beau, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the current situation.

This is the most striking downside of this slippery slope. Not only are Americans going to be less informed but the media will soon not focus enough on real issues to give them even the cursory blurbs they dedicate today. Apathy of the media as well as the public is a deadly combination for democracy.

After devoting so much time to ranting about sensationalism in the media, I am not going to keep any more of your time with my solution as the solution is simple.

Leave the sensationalism to The Enquirer, and go about writing up the stories that actually matter.

It’s fine to have an occasional Balloon Boy focus, but that doesn’t mean everything else has to be brushed to the side. There is a way to balance out the craving for ratings and the dignity of broadcasting true news.

Also, there’s the added benefit of not looking like morons if a story is a hoax. The Heene family manipulated the media like a marionette but the real damage came from the fact that Balloon Boy, in supposed flight, took the media with him until everything happening back on earth paled in comparison.

I do understand that CNN will still report on celebrities and human interest stories, but this is acceptable as long as it doesn’t trump more far-reaching affairs. This would help everyone-it would grant more legitimacy to news networks (if they actually broadcast real news) and it would create a savvier public.

In the end, everybody would win and the alternative is not feasible. If the media continues to focus less on wide-reaching news stories, and the public becomes more apathetic to the situation around them, there is no telling what could happen.

Immoral pragmatists could (and most likely would) subvert democracy or at least tailor it completely to suit their own ends (making current corruption look like child’s play).

The decline of Western civilization may seem like an overexaggeration, but today’s impossibility is tomorrow’s regret.

It’s time for a resurgence of responsible journalism and a renewed focus on actual news, as opposed to sensationalism. There is no room in our rapidly changing world for the misdirection of the news media’s attention.

After its coverage of Balloon Boy brought took the world on a flight of fancy, it’s time to bring the media back to earth.