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Teaching Children to Lie for TV


Larimer County, Colorado Sheriff Jim Alderden, announcing charges in the “balloon boy” caper. (Will Powers/Associated Press)

Give the “balloon boy” credit. He managed to spill the beans despite being coached by his parents to lie about the “flying saucer” incident on live TV. Speaking of his parents, six-year-old Falcon Heene told Wolf Blitzer on CNN Thursday night, “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.”

We did this for the show.

Dad was so desperate to have his own reality TV show he taught Falcon and his two older brothers to lie to the entire nation.

And Mom went along with it. Donna Reed, you’re dead, honey. As a doornail.


I guess we should all be glad the kid’s alive and well. I feel sorry, though, for the sheriff and other emergency workers who tried to save a child who was never in danger. “We were very worried that the life of a small child, a 6-year-old child may indeed be in jeopardy,” said Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden.

It was all one big stunt for a TV show, complete with corrupting one’s own children.

The New York Times’ coverage includes these details:

Mr. Heene and his wife have been enmeshed for years in the culture of reality television and self-promotional Web postings. The family appeared twice on the ABC show “Wife Swap,” including as recently as last March. Mr. Heene wanted his own show about his family, and he worked with at least one production company on a proposal. On Friday the cable channel TLC said it had turned down the proposal months ago. He has posted YouTube videos claiming to show proof of life on Mars and asking whether Hillary Rodham Clinton was a “reptilian.”

Last month Mr. Heene signed up for an account on RealityWanted.com, a Web site that connects reality television casting agents and aspiring contestants, according to Mark Yawitz, a co-founder of the site. Mr. Heene had made his profile private, making it impossible to view whether he had submitted his information to agents.

I didn’t know there was a “culture of reality television.” I was unaware of websites that “connect reality television casting agents and aspiring contestants.” Heck, I didn’t even know there were casting agents that promote these people. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given what happened to Jamie Oliver recently.

Another Times article on a more serious subject, American obesity, followed Oliver, the young British TV chef, who’s gone to one of the fattest cities in the country, Huntington, West Virginia, to try to teach people that simple cooking for one’s family at home is more nutritious and healthful.

The local delicacies in Huntington include a 15-pound hamburger (10 pounds of meat, 5 pounds of bread) and a 1-pound hot dog called the Home Wrecker, at an eatery called Hillbilly Hot Dogs. Here’s what that burger looks like in the kitchen:

(Mark Peterson/The New York Times)

(Mark Peterson/The New York Times)

Oliver learned how to prepare these things, and also found out about infants nursing on Coca-Cola and toddlers with Kool-Aid in their sippy cups. The results of Huntington’s atrocious diet are, of course, epidemic rates of diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. Oliver’s apparently a fairly serious food reformer who doesn’t judge people’s current habits, but tries to educate them in a fun way to expand their current repertoire so they can live longer and better. Of course, he needs TV to reach a mass audience with his “good news.”

Along the way he meets people in Huntington who don’t hear that his topic is food, but “reality TV.” The Times reports:

Oliver arrived at City Hall and disappeared backstage. The auditorium was less than half full, and the front rows were filled with local reporters. Mothers brought young children with an eye toward the camera. One even armed her daughter with an oversize school menu as a visual aid. Another woman seemed to have mistaken scratch cooking for “American Idol” — she raced back and forth, trying to persuade someone, anyone, to ask Oliver to listen to her daughter sing.

As a right-wing columnist used to say when I was growing up, “I fear for the future of the Republic.”

What has gotten into people, that the only thing they care about anymore is being on TV?

Do they lead such meaningless lives that the only solution they can fathom is being rich and famous?

We all know now that you don’t have to be accomplished or talented to be on TV; you can be famous just for being famous. But then what? How can Paris Hilton have a second act in life when she never had a first one? Or substitute Perez Hilton for Paris, it’s the same dif.

I once had a co-worker, a schoolteacher by day and (lazy) social worker by night, who spent most of her spare time reading gossip magazines and websites. She could tell all the latest doings by all these people I’d never heard of. I asked her why celebrity gossip matters to her. Her answer: “It’s fun.” She claimed she didn’t buy all the trashy magazines or devote every waking minute to them, anticipating what normal people would think of this, but the evidence was otherwise. She too is “enmeshed in the culture of reality TV.”

I suppose it’s better than heroin, but no less a waste of time and life. What sort of an education do you suppose she teaches her pupils? She’s not a stupid person, but ugliness like beauty is only skin-deep.

She reminded me of old women I’ve heard about who were so hooked on the Home Shopping Network that when they died, their survivors were faced with mountains of unopened merchandise that “Mom thought she wanted.” How many dozen Veg-a-Matics do you need, lady? I can see buying one Salad Spinner, but not 14 of them.

They were hooked on TV.

My spiritual director says, “We’re all addicted to something,” and I’m sure that’s right. She helps me with my addictions, including reminders not to judge others or myself. The cure really is spiritual, which is why God invented AA. (I maintain it was because God was sick of having another hundred thousand drunks bawling at him every day and night. God came up with AA and told Bill W. about it, because the angels were threatening to go on strike.)

I’m lucky; I haven’t watched television since 1986, when Jack got sick. Coping with major illness in the family means you don’t have time for what you used to do. TV was the easiest thing for me to dump, and I’ve never regretted it. I thank my lucky stars for it, including the $600 I save every year in cable bills. I still own a TV, but I’m thinking of putting it out on the curb.

Now here is this self-proclaimed scientist and inventor, this storm-chaser, so hooked on the idea of being on TV that he teaches his kids to lie for him. I mean, why shouldn’t they be famous? Everyone else is, it’s all anyone aspires to anymore.

O Jesus, come and help us!

Suppose the Heenes’ stunt had worked and they’d gotten a show, become rich and famous instead of infamous? I suppose they’d have laughed all the way to the bank; and yet I don’t like thinking about the pressure that would have put on little Falcon.

What’s on him right now is plenty. What happens when he goes to school tomorrow? What will the other kids say? How will he answer them? Will anyone play with him anymore?

How his teacher handles this will be pretty important; he’s six years old. I’m glad he’s not in the classroom of my former co-worker; she’d probably take his picture and try to sell it to People magazine.

We need to ask ourselves what fame is supposed to cure. It doesn’t seem to make movie stars happy; they simultaneously want to be publicly loved and want to be left alone. (“Oh, those dastardly paparazzi! Be sure to get me from my good side!”)

Serial killers want to be famous; if they can’t be famous for something good, then be famous for something bad. Politicians and pundits want to be famous, and they seem not to care whether they speak the truth or lie through their teeth. (Death panels, Chuck Grassley? You voted for them yourself five years ago!) Would Ann Coulter, Greta Van Susteren and Michelle Malkin be famous if they were ugly? A plain face doesn’t stop male gasbags, but it’s death on females.

If we can’t as a society see through these circuses, we’ll never create a just civilization.

I guess I’m losing my optimism, a year after we elected our Last Best Hope. American culture, though it’s still vibrant and diverse, is now dominated by lying, thieving corporations determined to melt the planet – and they all advertise on TV. The oligarchs are hoping they can make their money, then make their getaway before the whole place blows up. Did you hear, Goldman Sachs is giving out billions in bonuses again, thanks to your tax money?

I’m so glad I don’t have TV. As for Huntington, maybe Jamie Oliver can save a few people. If not, Big Pharma is waiting in the wings. Their lobbyists will be happy to hear your child sing for the cameras, as long as you agree to let them tell you why you can’t live without this nice purple pill.++

A diner at Hillbilly Hot Dog. (Mark Peterson/The New York Times)

A diner at Hillbilly Hot Dog. (Mark Peterson/The New York Times)