Balloon Boy and GOP Press Strategy


BalloonBoyLost in the hoohah over the Colorado balloon boy incident is the simple fact that the strategy is practiced daily by a GOP that long-ago sacrificed truth to their inflated drive for power.

For instance, the GOP alleges that Obama has hidden his communist/fascist/socialist agenda in his ascending balloon that casts a shadow over freedom and the future of America. Weren’t George W. Bush’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq precisely like the boy who wasn’t in the balloon?

Maybe the GOP’s balloon is shaped like a giant teabag instead of a bag of stove-top Jiffy Pop, but the right wing still has an awful lot in common with the Richard Heene family. To be fair, this kind of melodramatic, mortal-danger bait-and-switch is the very stuff of successful advertising. Inside every box of cereal is said to be the key to perfect health. Shame-free Republicans simply took the skill to a new level. If it works for laundry soap, why shouldn’t it work for politicians?

Democrats do it too, of course. The national press is like a dinner-theater audience. Easy to please and slow to recognize even stupid stage effects as fake, they almost beg us fool them. Still, by and large, the Democrats’ tether to reality has never come loose.

It’s telling that the Heene family perpetrated their hoax to boost their chances of getting cast in a TV reality show. Reality show. Let’s idle at this intersection a moment. Tomfoolery and fiction is the road to reality, at least when it comes to television. Okay, let’s get away from the intersection while we still can.

Can the press climb out of its own spaceship and get back down to earth? Today, too many journalists believe they’ve discharged their responsibilities by reporting, “He says there’s a boy in the balloon. She says there’s no boy in the balloon. You decide.”

We decide? The problem is, speaking metaphorically, we’re not in Colorado with the boy and the balloon. We need the press to report the truth, not competing versions of the truth.

But reporters will answer, “How do we know whether or not there’s a six-year-old hidden in the balloon when it’s floating thousands of feet above our heads?” And, “If we are skeptical and fail to capture the drama in real time, won’t we look like idiots if there is a boy in the balloon?”

But what would have been wrong with keeping a camera on the balloon while exploring the possibility that Falcon Heene was hidden elsewhere? Why not report, “This is an extraordinary claim. So extraordinary that while we show you the flight of the balloon, we’re going to investigate whether or not it’s possible the boy never crawled into the balloon in the first place.”

One question the press might have asked itself: How could Falcon have closed himself into the balloon and released it from its tether at the same time? Seems like common sense, doesn’t it?

In America, there never has been such a thing as a fully developed public interest media. That’s a myth. News reporting has always been at least slightly bent by ideology, personal biases, or corporate influence and the drive for profit.

The mission of cable news is to hold the attention of the audience just long enough to get to the commercials, which is its real business. A boy adrift in a balloon gets attention. Mission accomplished; truth be damned.

This has to change. While we look for institutional solutions, I’ll just ask my fellow Americans to think a moment about their ethical responsibilities. While you’re distracting us with false tales of wonder, the icebergs are melting.

Author: Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”

6 thoughts on “Balloon Boy and GOP Press Strategy”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your latter comments, however, I don’t understand why you would choose this example to highlight your own agenda which does nothing more than to justify the press’s reason for reporting it?

    1. I’m afraid I don’t quite understand your question. I don’t think anything I wrote could be understood as justifying the press’ failure to look deeper and report the truth rather than the superficial facts. Maybe I’m missing your point, though. If so, help me understand.

  2. Thank you for keeping the eye on the…er..uhum…balloon, Glenn.

    There’s been an unsettling feeling in me for days now as people get all up in arms about how the Heene’s “fooled us all” and wasted the Sherriff and FAA’s time. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that wasn’t being said but I think you have done the best job of bursting the bubble.

  3. You know, even if Obama turns out to be the communist infiltrator and Muslim traitor and so forth that the right-wing crazies say he is, at least that means he has a policy stance. Which of course the GOP doesn’t have at all.

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