Raise your hand if you remember Balloon Boy.
I lost what little respect I had left for my News Director that day, when he ordered us to take over regular programming and do a play-by-play of what was assumed to be an out-of-control weather balloon carrying a small child.
We didn’t know at the time that it was a hoax, but the ND jumped on the ‘Can’t miss a breaking story, even it’s not really news or verified’ bandwagon that was a creeping cancer in News Rooms across the country.
What we *did* know was the balloon was coming down from somewhere above 13,000 feet on a cold Colorado morning: It meant the 5-year-old child purported to be inside might have died of hypothermia, or might die on impact falling from such a height.
The News Director – KNOWING it could be coverage of a snuff shot – ordered the anchor on duty to describe a silver Mylar balloon being blown above barren fields as National Guard helicopters followed it, and Sheriff’s SUV’s chased it on the ground.
For 20 agonizing minutes this went on. I vaguely recall trying to get a physics professor on the line to fill time. I probably ended up calling Dr. Bill Wattenburg. It was agonizingly bad radio, I was embarrassed at the content and queasy about being part of a possible snuff shot play-by-play.
I remember CNN was covering it wall-to-wall, and several televisions in the News Room were on the live helicopter feed we were getting from TV downstairs, who was getting it from the ABC affiliate in Denver.
My ND stood with his hands on his head as the balloon crashed into the dirt and hooted out, “Oh! Oh-ho!! Look at that!!” It was so ugly when you realize he thought there was a little boy – the same age as his son – inside the basket of the balloon. Let’s not even talk about how unprofessional or undignified his reaction was.
His ‘spectating the train wreck’ approach to news was giving people a pass for death-voyeurism. He was treating presumed personal tragedy as entertainment.
That was the book (ratings period) we fell from 1st place in the Bay Area for the first time in 30 years, and stopped being the #1 station in the country. It was part of an inexorable downward spiral, as Cumulus picked the bones clean on a great station. First they cleaned the News Room out of the professionals who brought depth to their coverage and who might fight back against such lurid programming. Next they gave their listeners Balloon Boys and Singing Dogs. Finally they wondered why revenue was falling as listeners abandoned the station in droves.
My point is this: Fake News and Bullshit Stories have been around for a while. Balloon Boy himself is rooted in the Baby Jessica story from 1987, which was the start of 24 Hour Coverage of ‘Important Stories’ rather than actual News. It was the unleashing of Voyeurism-is-News school of programming.
CNN (gosh – those call letters again) covered Baby Jessica breathlessly for 2 1/2 days, as the country watched crews digging around the clock. But, what if rescuers had not been in time? What if the well had collapsed around Jessica and she was smothered on live TV singing nursery rhymes? CNN was A-Okay with broadcasting a tragedy or a happy ending – as long as they had eyeballs. Those eyeballs – a big slice of America – lapped up this personal disaster as amusement, and thus Newsertainment was born.
In the 30 years since Baby Jessica brought great ratings, News Directors push every story as if its lightening in a bottle, hoping to convince viewers to watch longer. Fox is an egregious abuser of this programming crutch, and their elderly viewers must be marinaded in cortisol from the daily stress response of being bludgeoned with cyrons screaming BREAKING NEWS!! at the bottom of their cathode ray screens.
In those 3 decades Newsertainment infiltrated every level of programming, giving birth to Reality TV: a format inexpensive to produce that the public confused with Actual Reality.
Reality TV took over television and bestowed upon the American public ‘Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire’ and such cultural icons as Mama June, Snookie and the entire Kardashian clan. The public loved to snicker about Ozzy Osbourne’s substance abuse, and D List stars talking about their addictions was a fine good time. Singing contests were better with someone like William Hung to humiliate. Nothing was too trivial or serious to make into Reality TV. You could watch a show about everything from a pre-pubescent beauty pageant contestant getting exploited by her mother (and the production company), to a vicious bully firing people arbitrarily.
People began to confuse the characters edited for broadcast with being real people. The lines between Actual Reality and Reality TV blurred.
‘The Media’ (not journalists) began to insert themselves into the story, hoping for ever more eyeballs. Expert panels turned into people shouting over one another – because who doesn’t like a good, mean fight? News became factoids and infotainment while Reality TV is nothing like Actual Reality.
In the end viewers tuned out of the experiment of Newsertainment. It’s as simple as that. The product became unwatchable and people stopped trusting news they get from The Media. And why should they? What little bit that isn’t fluff and glurge isn’t well researched or edited for want of researchers and editors in most news rooms.
The Media’s treatment of News as entertainment and Entertainment as reality blurred the lines to the point that it was inevitable America would end up with a POTUS #45.
Balloon Boy was just one brick on a path paved with bad decisions that brings us to the open grave of my beloved industry. It’s heartbreaking watching the few reporters left in the industry (there are 60% fewer reporters now than at the peak in the 1990s) trying to fill hundreds of hours of programming, or try to feed the continual beast of web site content. That content gets more and more diluted so gets fewer and fewer eyeballs, and the viscous circle continues.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see News recover. I do know that people like my News Director bashed News over the head with a shovel, and I’ll never forgive him for that.
I’d like to ask a favor: The next time you see a breaking story that’s not really a breaking story – don’t watch it. Perhaps you come across a grisly story of a tortured toddler – please don’t click. Trust me – you’ll live not knowing the gory details of how a dog mauled a baby, or exactly *how much* filth is caused by hoarding 50 dogs, or how terribly that toddler was tortured.
When a piece from a once-respectable publication (I’m looking at you Time) is ‘How To Find And Keep Love’ or ‘POTUS’ Top 10 Tweets Of All Time!’ could you just scroll past?
You don’t need to watch or encourage pregnant teens being exploited for their mistakes or their counterparts who wail and gnash their teeth because daddy bought the wrong color Mercedes.
Clicks and eyeballs will ultimately drive programming back to News. The only way we stop getting glurge, fluff and bullshit is if we stop consuming it. It’s that simple.
Keep clicking on crap and all we’ll get is crap. Idiocracy will look like a documentary and stories like Balloon Boy will win the Pulitzer. For the love of information – STOP CLICKING!