The Balloon Man as a media critic
What if Richard Heene, the guy who claimed his son was accidentally launched in an experimental balloon, were a media critic instead of a pathetic publicity hound?
What if he wanted to make the point that the news media, especially TV news, is overdosing us on mayhem and fluff?
Here's what Heene could have done: put a puppy in his experimental balloon, instead of pretending his kid Falcon was in it.
The puppy ride would undoubtedly have made national and international news, with images of the tail-wagging dog all over the place. TV stations would have dispatched helicopters to chase Heene's balloon. The media drama would have stretched on for days or longer.
Heene could have said he was fixing his balloon, and his annoying puppy was biting his shoes and knocking over his tools. We all know how pups can do that. So he put his unruly dog in the balloon basket to keep it contained, and the balloon accidentally floated away from him. (Or, the doggy just jumped in the basket of his own accord, like Toto in "The Wizard of Oz".)
Heene could have pulled off the entire stunt without telling anyone but the mute puppy.
And then, sitting there on the "Today Show," with millions of morning viewers looking on, media-critic Heene could have come clean and skewered the journalists for paying so much attention to his balloon-riding puppy, while so much real horror and tragedy in the world go by unnoticed.
Of course, there's the risk that the balloon could have crashed and the puppy died, and then Heene may have faced animal-abuse charges. And even if the puppy survived, Heene may still have been held responsible for the emergency-response costs and other damages.
Here's another option.
In his bizarre book, "How You Can Manipulate the Media," David Alexander describes how an activist sent out a news release threatening to "pour gasoline on a puppy and set it afire" to protest U.S. involvement in violence in Central America during the Reagan administration.
You can imagine the response. Local TV coverage. Letters to the editor. Protests by animal rights groups.
People called the police, but no one had any recourse because, as Alexander writes, it's not against the law to threaten to harm an animal.
The protester scheduled the puppy burning to coincide with the 5 p.m. news. Several stations were broadcasting live when he emerged from his house with the puppy in hand, according to Alexander.
Then the protester turned into a media critic on live television. He denounced journalists for ignoring the problems in Central America and for caring more about pets than people. He announced that he would not burn his puppy after all. In fact, he loved dogs. Media hoax over.
If Heene had been a media critic, all he would have had to do was threaten to send a puppy up in his balloon, and you can bet he'd have gotten a ton of media attention.
The puppy-in-a-balloon threat, or possibly an actual canine balloon ride, would have been the perfect platform to denounce TV news' fixation on mayhem and fluff, especially involving animals. Heene probably wouldn't have gotten in any trouble at all for doing it. (Last week, he pleaded guilty to felony charges.)
And, as far as I'm concerned, Heene would have been a hero for trying to get re-porters and media consumers alike to wake up and demand quality journalism, instead of settling for the increasingly pervasive American news diet of infotainment.--
Jason Salzman, author of "Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Non-profits," is chairman of the board of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and a former media critic for the shuttered newspaper Rocky Mountain News.