Posted by: Jeff | October 19, 2009

The American Media: Balloons and Other Shiny Things

It’s been nearly 96 hours since a weather balloon in Colorado floated up into the sky, purportedly carrying a little boy in a basket.  If that doesn’t seem particularly news-worthy, then consider that there never was a little boy in the balloon.  All it took was a shiny metallic object floating in the sky for the American media to lose its collective mind.

Is this really going to be an enduring iconic image?

Is this really going to be an enduring iconic image?

Ask the average American to recount the details of the balloon boy story, and it’s pretty likely they can.  After all, cable news networks devoted practically 24/7 coverage to the event and its subsequent resolution or lack thereof over the weekend.  Even network affiliates made the fallout of the balloon hoax their lead-ins for the nightly news.  Could the average American explain what’s going on in Afghanistan right now?  Or get into any detail about health care reform other than a value statement about the ridiculous socialist/fascist meme?

Where are we as a country that this balloon is not only news, but the sole story of interest?

Arianna Huffington went on MSNBC on Thursday shortly after the discovery of little Falcon in his parents’ attic, and she was among the first to criticize the way that the media latched onto this story.  Her argument from the start was that the story, while of some interest, does not immediately trump the other news events of the week – namely, the Senate reporting the Baucus health care reform bill to the floor, or the botched elections in Afghanistan that have serious implications for the American role and continued presence there.

The coverage and fallout of this story has demonstrably given credence to an oft-thrown criticism that American media is fickle and increasingly irrelevant.  Watch CNN and you might believe that the three biggest news stories in the world this fall have been Jon Gosselin, Kanye West, and Balloon Boy.  Our obsession with spectacle has led us to ignore the issues that actually have substantial bearing on how we live our lives.  We’ve grown accustomed to the media being a forum through which we view vicariously the lives of the rich and weird.

But it isn’t only the media at fault. Foreign Policy ran a piece last week that commented on the extraordinary amount of attention American citizens have given the balloon story, and wondered rhetorically whether that attention could have been better utilized elsewhere:  “The amount of energy that had been exerted by the Twitterati to save the now infamous “balloon boy” would probably be enough to prevent at least a few dozen African genocides.”  There’s a very real point here.  If America’s rapt attention focused on Rwanda with this intensity, for instance, is there any doubt that President Clinton and Secretary Albright would have felt compelled to action?  And what about Iran?  What does it say about our society that we stand unified in hoping balloon boy lands safely, but don’t bat an eye when hearing recent reports of mass atrocities abroad?

Analysis on cable television is now analogous with demagoguery.  Subtleties in political discourse have been replaced with simplified absurdities.  How can people seriously launch a protest against a public option in health care while deriding the government for failing to provide a better public option in transportation on the weekends?

I don’t know how we fix this.  Obviously the media doesn’t feel accountable to cover meaningful topics.  And obviously Americans aren’t really demanding it.  But with the revolution in communication and the potential for mobilization around political and social causes, it is a real shame that all of our empathy and concern is so easily drawn by a crazy father willing to shove his son in an attic for attention.  I saw 50 facebook updates about the balloon last week.  I didn’t see any about Afghanistan.  Not that I expect to, but why do we care so passionately for something that doesn’t have any bearing on our lives?

I saw Jon Stewart do a stand-up routine this weekend, and he summarized the diminishing import of American media as well as anyone can: it is a sad state of affairs when our “serious” media outlets interrupt a newscast with “In Afghanistan, electoral turmoil… OH MY GOD SOMETHING SHINY IN THE SKY” and nobody bats an eye.  Yes, yes it is.

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