Deflated: Balloon Boy's the Story of Our Ugly, Sorry Era

Richard Heene has spoken out after Sheriff Jim Aldernan's press conference. He's currently "seeking counsel" and got teary as he told the AP that "this thing has become so convoluted." He's pretty on point in that regard.

Who knows how this thing's going to play out. A verdict, a penalty, there's really no telling at this point how Richard Heene's going to handle the charges against him or the social and emotional tax on the Heene family. But what we do know is that the story of the boy in the balloon, filled as it was with real feelings of terror and relief, is a painful illustration of the sorry state of a reality TV-addled culture.

Blame the Heenes, of course, but who else? Just them? We could blame the rest of us glued to 40" hi-def images, waiting for the latest fix of manufactured conflict and emotion to get us through to the next blog post. Yes, Gawker is as bad as everyone else. We were part of the assembly line. But we also know that the page view counts on our reality show recaps dwarf anything we put up on, say, the death spiral of the publishing industry.

The only thing I've really home taken from this sad story, besides the fact that reality television is bad for people—literally, people, children: from the Gosselins to the Heenes—is that the harder you try to set the truth adrfit, the more obfuscation you bury it under, and the more piles of bullshit you throw on top of it, the more gravity is strippped from it, so that, like that goddamn balloon, it rises up, up, up and out of plain view, for everyone to see, completely out of reach of the person from which it had to come from.

The first bit of truth that will be lost, no doubt, is that some of us were complicit in this thing's makings. If we and you hadn't tuned in on Thursday afternoon (or clicked through on Saturday), if we weren't conditioned to lap up whatever reality freak show Richard Heene wanted to give us — or the one he delivered on — would this have happened? Not sure.

But fame — and what passes for genuine drama — is a hell of a drug. So this sad story (that I'd rather someone had have written before it happened, mostly, because kids were involved, and they shouldn't have been) is about the image of a balloon that might've had a kid in it and was terrifyingly captivating. If you watched, you felt terror, and you felt like shit for watching it. Between Wife Swap and the video of Falcon Heene may or maybe not being on the balloon, there's no question that America's got strong, strong voyeuristic impulses. How do you think we turn a dime around here?

As quickly and as easily as this website purchased the proof that Heene's story was a load of shit, you're left with no good angle to go at this from. We've entered the vindictive phase of the story as we wait to see just how dearly Richard Heene will pay for wasting the time of the Fort Collins sherriffs, the FAA, the media and — perhaps most importantly — all of us who bothered to watch his hoax unfold this past Thursday.

It seems all too easy to paint Heene as the crazed villain; then again, it's perfectly sensible. But truth: it's stranger than fiction. In this case, it's the story of a guy with a dream that's become too common: quickfire fame, notoriety, a reality television show. Heene had tasted that nasty once-forbidden fruit of easy notoriety on Wife Swap. Twice. And the Heene family didn't look great then, either: Heene was a father with a short temper who couldn't discipline his kids. He was eccentric and a guy of questionable stability, but when you score it with music, sound effects, and frame it between commercials, it looks a lot less harmless than it actually is. We want to think all reality television is edited down to make some of these people look like more exaggerated characters than they are. In some cases, that's absolutely the case. In the case of shows like Wife Swap, it isn't.

Last night, at a bar — where all good points are made — someone put it out there: If this guy loved his wife, would he have swapped her on TV? Nobody can speak for Richard Heene, but you know: this thing goes deep into murky waters, to say the least. Here's a guy who wanted fame so badly, he'd make America think his kid was on a balloon. He was okay with the perception — even if it was just for a moment — that he'd somehow neglected to keep his kid from floating away. I don't have kids, just parents. And if I thought they felt that way for a second, I'd probably hate them for a very, very long time.

If what Robert Thomas says is true, it's also the story of guy who is, on some level, ill. The desire and availability of fame fed into that. Which goes without saying: Robert Thomas got in on it, too. For a price.

And again, the kids are now the victim. Heene shouldn't have put his family on TV in interviews. He shouldn't have kept making them provide cover for him. When Falcon Heene said "You said we did it for the show," it was that moment of truth: the innocent one can't lie. You can't teach a kid how to be that deceptive, you can't instill that kind of strength. It doesn't work. Under enough pressure, it breaks. And Heene didn't even bother to work hard enough to get it right, or instill enough paternal love to the point where Falcon couldn't do anything but tell the truth: they did it for the show.

As for us, how culpable are we for the damage Falcon Heene's gonna experience? My bosses beat someone else to the punch and got a good story that turned out to be true. If it wasn't us, at that point, it would've been someone else. And from what I understand, there were others in line. Not a shocker. We're about as culpable as Wolf Blitzer, Nancy Grace, Shep Smith, the wires, the papers, magazines, and whoever else covered this. Media blackouts on breaking, exploitative news are rare (which is what makes cases like David Rohde's so interesting). The starter pistol was fired, we just got there first. It happens.