Six weeks or so ago, I was working a Thursday lunch shift, which had gotten off to a slow start, as they often do. One of the restaurant televisions was set to CNN, as it often is, with the volume off. As we waited for the lunch rush, the other waitresses and I leaned around in the server station, watching the looping news of the hour. The lead story centered on a horse that had stumbled into a large mudpit in Dawson, Texas.
Within a few minutes, CNN had seized on breaking news that trumped even the excitement of a live horse-rescue in a Texas mudpit. Beneath a giant “breaking news banner,” the picture changed.
A mushroom-shaped, silver balloon was skimming across the blue skies of Larimer County, Colorado. According to CNN, a 6-year old boy was trapped inside. We gawked at the television, then at each other. Those of us with tables circled out onto the restaurant floor to wait on them, then returned to the server station to crane our necks at the silent television overhead.
The picture wouldn’t change for a long time. CNN spent the rest of the lunch shift broadcasting live coverage of the flight of the supposedly-child-bearing silver mushroom, breaking away from the rippling silver orb only long enough to interview key experts on the matter as they were dredged up. Experts included: the Larimer County Sheriff, a neighbor who had seen the balloon under construction in the family’s backyard, and an expert on balloon aeronautics. They even showed us pictures of the kid, who turned out to be named Falcon, ironically enough.
He was a cute kid. We figured that if he was in the balloon, he was either crying, unconscious, very cold, or all of the above. We also speculated he was probably just hiding somewhere in his house. Even if he were crying, unconscious, or very cold several thousand feet off the ground, he was still just one, albeit, one very scared, kid. As I stared and made cynical comments (such as: “We’re probably invading another country right now”) I wondered how many kids were dying in war zones or starving to death right here at home while America (me included) stared at the television, captivated by the flight of the silver mushroom. My customers started asking me for updates, the same way they often ask me for the current or final score of sporting events I generally know nothing about. “Is it true he fell out?” “How fast is it going?” “Do they have any idea what the altitude is?” I answered them to the best of my abilities, offering what little “information” we’d gleaned from the closed captioning.
We like a good spectacle. It distracts us from the mundane (a lunch shift), the depressing (the recession), the ordinary (politics as usual, insufficient paychecks, credit card debt, ketchup bottles and bleach rags). It wasn’t just Americans who tuned in… Al Jazeera was even giving the balloon some coverage.
I leaned in closer with everyone else as the balloon began to lose altitude, finally skimming across the soft brown of plowed Colorado fields.
And then we knew. There was no six-year old boy in the silver mushroom. His absence gave new credence to the theory that he’d fallen out, and the network offered enhanced still photos from the flight with a tiny dot beneath the balloon, potentially his body or some piece of the apparatus.
We started to wonder if the Larimer County Sheriff had bothered to search the kid’s house.
Sure enough, Falcon turned up in the attic later that day, safe and unharmed. His father and mother shed tears of joy on national television, and we began to learn the sordid details of their family album. They’d previously starred on the reality show “Wife Swap.” The three prepubescent sons had made their own youtube rap video with a little help from dad. It featured a variety of references to bodily functions, and sterling lines like “faggot in a tree peeing on me.”
The following morning, little Falcon-who-hadn’t-been-in-the-balloon threw up on the Today Show. Somewhere during the family’s national media junket, he was asked why he’d hidden in the attic, to which he responded “they said it was for the show.” The entire mess unraveled quickly, and within a few hours, the publicity-hungry family had lost its ability to captivate viewers. We heard updates over the following weeks—mom and dad charged with false reporting and misleading public servants—but America had already gotten bored and moved on. By Thanksgiving, all you could find on the news was stories of a couple of reality tv show contestants who’d wrangled their way into a state dinner at the White House. This incident was also discussed, ad infinitum, by every “expert” the networks could dig up. Experts included: other people who had attended the dinner. Reporters and makeup artists who thought the couple looked out of place. Society column writers. Washington D.C. bloggers.
The Uninvited State Dinner Guests are, like the Flight of the Childless Silver Mushroom, essentially meaningless.
Its the context in which we learn about them where the real and terrifying meaning lies. Millions of us stare slack-jawed at the 24-hour news networks, which bend over backwards to ignore the rest of the world for our entertainment. During the hours while Falcon was not in the balloon,
Two American soldiers were instantly killed and two others died of their wounds after their patrol vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan, military officials said on Friday.
The explosion took place sometime on Thursday, but no other information was released, pending notification of family members, said Lt. j.g. Tommy Groves, a Navy spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan.
In a separate episode, an Afghan woman and school-aged child were killed in cross-fire in southeastern Afghanistan during an operation to find militants suspected of carrying out a series of attacks, the international forces in Afghanistan said. (NY Times, 17 October 2009)
The federal budget deficit… surged to an all-time high of $1.42 trillion as the recession caused tax revenues to plunge while the government was spending massive amounts to stabilize the financial system and jump-start the economy. The imbalance for the budget year ended Sept. 30, more than tripled last year’s record. The Obama administration projects deficits will total $9.1 trillion over the next decade unless corrective action is taken.
As a portion of the economy, the budget deficit stood at 10 percent, the highest since World War II, according to government data released Friday. (NY Times 16 October 2009)
We’d rather watch a silver mushroom floating through the sky than hear about people dying in Afghanistan, or learn that the budget deficit is higher than its been since the last World War, sixty years ago. Just like we’d rather listen to talking heads speculate on a publicity-seeking couple who snuck into a state dinner, rather than consider the fact that thirty-thousand troops are about to ship out for Afghanistan. Or the fact that our elected representatives can’t stop squabbling or pandering to insurance companies long enough to pass the healthcare reforms Americans have been clamoring (and dying) for.
Here’s a novel idea: a news program thats dedicated to news. Were Edward Murrow on the air now, would he have bothered to give airtime to the Flight of the Silver Mushroom? Would Bill Moyers? We should thank our lucky stars for Amy Goodman. Her program Democracy Now ignored the Flight of the Silver Mushroom that day, reporting instead on headlines like:
US Considers Rewriting Intel Report on Iranian Nuke Program
12 Die in Suicide Blast in Pakistan
Runoff Election May Be Held in Afghanistan
House Votes to Allow Gitmo Prisoners to be Tried in US
Obama Makes First Visit to New Orleans as President
Dozens Arrested at Sit-In Protests at Health Insurance Companies
CNN Commentator Revealed to be Working for America’s Health Insurance Plans (HUH)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Backs Goldstone Report (a groundbreaking expose on war crimes committed by Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza)
Syrian Dissident Attorney Arrested
Mothers Seek Release of US Hikers Detained in Iran
Puerto Rican Workers Stage General Strike
Social Security Recipients Will Receive No Cost of Living Increase in 2010
House Panel Votes to Regulate Part of Derivatives Market
Louisiana Justice of Peace Refuses to Marry Interracial Couple
Beef Industry Threatens California School over Michael Pollan Speech
Report: Little Progress in Reducing World Hunger Since 1990
Sure. It sounds like a depressing gang of headlines. And sure, some of those stories are hard to listen to. [So are the hours of coverage CNN devotes to child rapists, and the mysterious case of the little girl who may or may not have been murdered by her mother 2 years ago, a case which somehow merits coverage on CNN every other night I’m at work.] Here’s some surprising news: listening to Amy Goodman’s news program isn’t actually depressing. She consistently airs stories about the struggles and triumphs and needs of ordinary people. She gives these people the chance to speak for themselves, and for context, she relies on the expertise of activists and scholars and statesmen who have real-world experience relating to these life and death issues—not talking heads who spend every night of the week making the rounds of the networks. She tackles global politics every day, and she makes it clear how those abstractions perpetuated by people in power actually affect working people on the ground.
Of course, Amy Goodman doesn’t tend to air on the restaurant and airport televisions of America. Her headlines do not occupy the sidebars of our internet searches. They hardly ever merit the snarky re-coverage of the other news networks. All those networks care about is giving us the kind of “news” they think we want to hear.
SO WHAT if we’d rather watch the spectacle of a mushroom shaped balloon and speculate on the fate of a single American six-year old? Some things matter more, like the fact that our efforts to combat world hunger have gone no where in the last 19 years. Or the fact that somewhere in New Orleans, social justice activists are still fighting to get people livable housing, over four years after Katrina. And while its sad that they have to keep fighting, its inspiring that they are. And I want to know about it.
Maybe its time for a SENSATIONEWS channel. They can talk about The Flight of the Childless Silver Mushroom till the cows come home, and the rest of the networks can learn a thing or two from real journalists, and start reporting on the things that Matter.