As the author of a skeptically-minded book on cults, conspiracies, and secret societies, I feel that I should say something for the record about the balloon boy hoax. I figured it was a publicity stunt when I learned that the family had been featured on Wife Swap. When little Falcon’s tongue slipped on the Larry King Show (and what kind of parents would go on a talk show that soon after their ordeal, anway?), that sealed it for me and pretty much every other thinking person on the planet. I felt bad for the sheriff, who had been on an emotional roller coaster; until Sunday’s press conference, he seemed to be the only person in the world who believed that he hadn’t been had.
Balloon Boy demonstrates that we have a sensation-starved, bottomlessly credulous media, but that’s nothing new. Edgar Allan Poe pulled off his own balloon hoax in 1844, when he wrote a story in the New York Sun about a balloonist named Monck Mason who had inadvertently crossed the Atlantic; almost ten years before that, the Sun printed a series of stories about a scientist’s astonishing discovery that the moon was inhabited by man-sized bats (Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and the Moon tells the full story).
Balloon Boy shows us that the line between real and fake celebrity (whatever that means–famous is as famous does) has been blurred beyond recognition and that the coin of renown has been devalued. First we had Brad and Angie; then we had Kate and Jon; now reality wannabes can get famous too. Didn’t Andy Warhol tell us that this was coming?
Of course Brangelina is a lot wealthier than the Gosselins, and the Gosselins are richer than the Heenes. But should real celebrities worry that cheap celebrities will make them less bankable over time? William Shatner, a real celebrity, swiftly moved to distance himself from Heene, stating, “He’s inflated the amount of contact we’ve had.” Inflation is very much to the point. In economics, Gresham’s Law states that bad money drives out good. It goes back to Queen Elizabeth’s England. Because England’s gold coins were clipped or shaved or adulterated, people either melted down the best coins or used them to buy foreign goods, with the result, in Sir Thomas Gresham’s words to the Queen, that “all your ffine goold was convayd ought of this your realm.”
The balloon boy hoax served no one but the Heenes’ and the talk show bookers’ interests, and as it turned out, it won’t even serve the Heenes all that well if they go to prison or have to pay fines. The Yes Men, on the other hand, are professional hoaxers with a genuine political agenda. This week’s stunt, in which they impersonated officials from the US Chamber of Commerce and announced that they had reversed their policies on global warming, raised the pressure on the Chamber of Commerce (which was already reeling from Apple’s and Nike’s high-profile resignations), forcing them to at least acknowledge the importance of climate change in a genuine press release of their own: “Public relations hoaxes undermine the genuine effort to find solutions on the challenge of climate change….The U.S. Chamber believes that strong climate legislation is compatible with the goals of improving our economy and creating jobs.”
I mentioned the Yes Men in CULTS, CONSPIRACIES, AND SECRET SOCIETIES in the context of the bizarre nineteenth century hoaxer Leo Taxil. Taxil was the pen name of Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pages (1854-1907), an ex-free thinker and highly public convert to Catholicism who, in a number of sensational books, claimed to have discovered Palladism, a devil-worshipping Masonic sect associated with Albert Pike and the Scottish Rite. In 1897, he held a press conference and admitted that he had made the whole thing up. Not just Palladism, everything–starting with his conversion. For more than a decade, he had been telling the Catholic Church exactly what it wanted to hear, feeding “the most colossal hoax of modern times,” and setting them up for a stupendous fall when he exposed it. He had begun his career as a hoaxer as a nineteen year old, when he created a panic about fictitious shark attacks in Marseilles (shark attacks remain a staple of the sensationalistic media to this day); a few years later he fed Swiss newspapers a bogus story about a sunken city beneath Lake Geneva.
Are there wider lessons to be gleaned from any of this, besides not believing everything you read in the newspaper (or hear on the radio, watch on TV, or read on the Web)? Carolyn Plocher at the right wing Media Research Center compares the wide-spread exposure of the balloon boy hoax with the widely-uncorrected liberal smears against Rush Limbaugh, who was falsely tarred with charges of racism when he tried to buy the Rams.
Rush Limbaugh a racist? Where do people get these crazy ideas?