Do the Balloon People Have a Right to Publicity?

Oct 19, 09 | 8:09 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The boy in the balloon or, as it were, the boy not in the balloon, is a publicity stunt which has many people outraged, questioning the sanity of the boy’s father, the intelligence of the media, and the values of a media-driven culture.

But other than the lower-than-usual trick of using a child’s welfare to get attention, and the better-than-usual trick of staging a runaway balloon, why is this publicity stunt different from all the others that now fill the Newser grid?

You don’t really think Al Sharpton, for instance, is going to sue Rush Limbaugh for damaging his reputation in remarks he made blaming Sharpton for the failure of his bid to buy the Rams? We all know he is going to jump up and down and say he’ll sue so as to get some ink.

And then there’s Rush’s bid for the Rams—which was, undoubtedly as much about the press he’d get as it was about the good seats.

Or there's Sarah Palin's latest press-seeking move, which has her joining LinkedIn and listing herself as looking for work.

Or the administration’s fight with Fox, and Fox’s offense at the administration—each gets valuable airtime out of this.

All of these instances of studied conflict represent a series of calculations about what it takes to get the media to react.

Child protection services, which is eyeing the balloon family and the possible detrimental effects of its publicity seeking on its minor children, might, using a similar rational, take a look at the Gosselin family, and perhaps even the Palin family, too, or at every newsmaker’s home. Much of the news, after all—most of it, actually—is staged, manufactured, and timed in order to promote someone’s ambitions.

The balloon people, the Heene family, were merely trying to get their piece of the publicity pie. Publicity is like wealth; if you’ve already gotten it, people take it for granted you deserve it. If you don’t have it and unartfully grab for it, you can seem like a terrible parvenu, as well as emotionally troubled (not that this has hurt the Gosselins).

Of course, in the case of the Heenes, this is not just a publicity stunt, but a hoax. In the many permutations of manufacturing conflict and manipulating people’s attentions, making it up out of whole cloth is rather risky and unprofessional behavior. This is why there is an entire industry devoted to helping you get publicity without it appearing that you are only trying to get publicity. The corrupt and guileful and mendacious against all evidence to the contrary can appear quite straightforward, earnest, sincere, and, even, genuinely wronged. That’s modern alchemy.

The Heenes failed to understand that publicity is not just about drama but about craft and expertise and about being in the publicity club.

The Heenes are just terrible upstarts.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at You can also follow him on Twitter:
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