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.