The boy in the balloon
Crime usually does the trick. Sometimes politics will do, or an especially heated municipal issue.
Here’s something else that might fill the bill. Put a 6-year-old boy in some kind of weird homemade helium balloon that looks like something out of your favorite “Invasion of the Martians” cheesy sci-fi flick, then have the balloon suddenly come loose and go airborne, supposedly with the boy still inside.
I happened to mention the weird story to some people in the office early yesterday afternoon. The look in their faces told me all I needed to know. The “boy in the balloon,” floating over the Colorado landscape, was about to become the center of the media universe.
You could not pry people away from the television in our office yesterday. I imagine the same scene was played out all across the nation. Thankfully, the story had a happy ending. Eventually the balloon – which looked kind of like the spaceship from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” – returned to Earth on its own. Then came the moment of truth, opening the latch and looking inside.
As the nation held its breath, we learned that the boy was not inside.
So where was he? We pondered that as the good folks on TV informed us that someone had seen the boy get into the balloon, sparking talk that maybe the boy had fallen out.
A huge search was put in place, trying to trace the path the balloon took from where it lifted off in Fort Collins, about 40 minutes north of Denver, to where it touched down near the Denver airport, in the plains east of the Mile High City.
Our fascination with this story says something about us – myself included. I am a member of the media. I rushed to put the latest updates on the story on our Web site. TV, as you can expect, switched into all-boy-in-the-balloon, all the time. For two hours, we heard every possible bit of speculation about the story.
It was a visual story, and we were mesmerized by the video of the balloon – supposedly with its precious cargo – floating against a solid blue sky. The only thing missing was some background music, maybe David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
“This is ground control to the 6-year-old in the balloon.”
“Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do. … Here, am I sitting in my tin can.”
Only in this case it was a makeshift spaceship-balloon.
There was a time when we would not have seen all this on live TV. It would not have been on every Web site in the country. It would have been reported, but likely only after all the facts were determined.
Clearly, those days are gone. We give people news when they want it – which is right now. Not necessarily after things can be thoroughly checked out.
It’s the nature of the news business now. We don’t publish once a day any longer. We publish instantaneously. We get information, we “publish”
it online. When it changes. We change the story online.
TV brings us streaming live images of the drama, complete with live commentary that may or may not be accurate.
As we know now, the boy was never on the balloon. Instead he was discovered hiding in a box in the attic of his home.
That no doubt will set off a whole new media storm. Questions are being asked about the family and who knew what and when about the now-infamous incident.
I will leave that for others. All I know is this. When you have 24-hour media - TV, radio, print and online - you have to feed the beast. Think O.J., Michael Jackson and any other high-profile celebrity saga. Or, in the case of yesterday’s story, something that cuts right into our marrow, a child alone floating across the sky in a helium balloon.
Anyone remember the little girl in the well? We can’t get enough of it.
Yesterday we served up a mesmerizing two-hour feast of human drama.
And the public ate it up, and still came back for more. Just as they will today and tomorrow.
Up, up and away. You could use that to describe the story of the boy in the balloon.
And the way the media covered it.