The "Balloon Boy" hoax spellbound the entire country Oct. 15. Everyone empathized with the situation of the supposedly floating child or the supposedly distraught parents. But the real problem was different. It was the increasingly sickening blur between reality and "reality" TV.
Skepticism about the boy in the balloon should have begun -- and coverage should have ended -- the second journalists learned that the family had made two appearances on the ABC "reality" show called "Wife Swap," where families switch mothers to dramatic effect. But maybe it was hard to imagine that someone would be so desperate for attention that they would squander thousands and thousands of government dollars getting everyone from the county sheriff to the Federal Aviation Administration involved in a lie.
In the desperate search for the cliched 15 minutes of fame, many Americans have gravitated to trying out for "reality" shows, often with the goal of parlaying an appearance into a broader television career -- acting, hosting, perhaps losing dramatically on "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?"
In some cases, they went to regain the fame lost. That is perhaps the most embarrassing. (See DeLay, Tom.)
Back to the Balloon Boy. Richard and Mayumi Heene, the people responsible for suckering America, first met at an acting school in Hollywood. Richard pursued careers in acting and standup comedy and flopped, so he took up the shtick of amateur scientist. During his time on "Wife Swap," ABC played up the oddity: "Mom Mayumi is devoted to helping her fringe scientist and inventor husband Richard build a flying saucer and hunt for UFOs as they hope to find evidence to support their belief that all humans are descended from aliens." He told of once passing out in a fast-food restaurant and hearing aliens speak to him. He boasted of his plans to build a flying saucer covered in aluminum foil and send it into a tornado.
Now he's looking for a new career making license plates.
The Heenes are not the only "reality" show boneheads in trouble with the law. Lisa deMoraes of The Washington Post reported that one day after original "Survivor" winner Richard Hatch was released from a Massachusetts jail for not paying taxes on his $1 million "Survivor" prize from CBS, the guy who won the 2008 round of CBS's "Big Brother" was thrown in a Massachusetts slammer after confessing to having used his $500,000 prize to try to launch a new business -- dealing drugs.
Adam Jasinski was arrested Saturday after showing a snitch a sock filled with oxycodone. He's been charged with attempting to sell 2,000 oxycodone pills to Todd Prough, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Prough said in the affidavit that Jasinski told him that he was using his "Big Brother" winnings to buy thousands of oxycodone pills and has been reselling them along the East Coast for the past several months. He's now facing 20 years in prison and a million-dollar fine.
But that's nothing. VH1 officials are facing the music surrounding the gruesome story of Ryan Jenkins, a good-looking rich kid from Canada they recruited for the show "Megan Loves a Millionaire." Jenkins said, "I'm so James Bond and I'm gonna rock it" for the cameras.
It turns out he was less James Bond and more Charles Manson. Days after taping two episodes for VH1 in August, Jenkins checked into a luxury ocean-side hotel in San Diego with his wife, a gorgeous model (and aspiring actress) named Jasmine Fiore. Then she was found dead -- stuffed in a bloodstained suitcase thrown into the trash. Her fingers and teeth had been removed to delay identification, but the cops found her name by the serial number on her breast implants. VH1 quickly canceled their "Millionaire" show, but this story descended further when Jenkins was found dead of a suicide, hanging by a belt from a coat rack in a run-down Canadian motel.
Obviously, this is a rather extreme case of bad character. But the ratings-hungry makers of "reality" TV, in constant search of "characters" that they can cast and even expect viewers to hate or laugh at, are working with people whose desire for recognition can override any sense of moral judgment -- and just plain common sense.
Many of these "reality" people, it turns out, weren't very good people. Imagine that.