If you were away from TV during Fall Break, you might have missed the ridiculous drama of The Colorado Balloon Incident. The Heene family of Fort Collins, Colo., ignited a media firestorm after the family’s father, Richard Heene, told authorities in a desperate 911 call that his six-year-old son, Falcon, was floating away aboard a homemade flying saucer-shaped balloon that came loose from its mooring in the Heenes’ backyard. After a 50-mile journey, the balloon crash-landed, but little Falcon was nowhere to be found.

Thinking the boy might have fallen out during the flight, law enforcement launched a search and soon discovered Falcon had been hiding in the Heenes’ garage the entire time. Richard Heene claimed he sincerely thought his son had climbed aboard the saucer, but in a Wolf Blitzer interview, Falcon let slip that the family had put on the whole event “for the show.” The next morning, in a live interview with NBC’s Today Show, Falcon vomited when his father tried to justify his son’s comments. Now the Larimer County sheriff’s office is certain that the Heenes, who previously appeared on ABC’s reality show “Wife Swap,” faked the whole incident as a publicity stunt to market themselves for their own reality TV series.

The Colorado Balloon Incident is just the latest media frenzy seemingly motivated by a desire for reality fame. You might recall Nadya Suleman, the “Octo-mom,” who signed a deal with a European production company earlier this year to star in her own reality show. She gave birth to octuplets conceived through in-vitro fertilization paid for in government disability money.

I’m sure many of us see the attention Balloon Boy and Octo-mom receive and lament how reality television has tainted a medium we once could trust. Television, including local and cable news, has transformed into its own brand of yellow journalism, where sensation trumps substance every time. I’m baffled how Suleman and the Heene family so easily hoodwinked us all into giving them attention. Some might blame the public for lapping up celebrity gossip, shock news and soap opera programming. Others might impugn the networks for shoving this garbage down our throats. Almost universally, though, people think this phenomenon of sensationalism is a bad influence. I disagree.

I despise Octo-mom. And as much guilty pleasure I take from watching the Heene family train wreck, I’m quickly tiring of them, too. In a less perfect world, I would be forced to endure this drivel until the next ridiculous story broke, but thankfully I hold in my hands the ultimate power in the universe — the remote control. Over-hyped stories like these remind me and millions of others that we have the power to decide what we watch and the responsibility to question what is being presented to us as news or truth.

The “trusted newsmen” era of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and others lulled Americans into complacency. People trusted Uncle Walter to be a one-stop shop for news. Now with radio, television, the Internet and hundreds of news sources within those different channels all competing for the public’s attention, people are better able to decide what they consider newsworthy. Overtly sensationalist reporting is easier to pick out and avoid, and most importantly, it exposes the hidden motivation behind many news organizations: to make a profit.

The more people who realize news sources, just like anything else in our great capitalist nation, are primarily out to make a buck, the better, smarter and more discriminating we become as consumers of news. You don’t need me to tell you that a smarter audience, willing to seek out truth for themselves, is better than the apathetic alternative. Viewers are finally realizing that reality TV is often anything but. Rather than watching what’s fed to them, smarter viewers decide to sift through the trash to find programming they appreciate. It might be annoying, but the wisdom and experience that the sifting helps create far outweighs the negative effects of exposure to sensationalism.

We shouldn’t forget that many people are actually entertained by the real life drama of a kid-in-a-flying-saucer hoax, and that’s fine. If after a long day someone is looking for something to make them laugh or pique their curiosity, I have no problem with Octo-mom filling that need. As terrible as they seem, these sensational scandals have the potential to help everybody — as long as we keep fresh batteries in our remotes.

Chris Koslowski can be reached at cskoslow@umich.edu.

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