The Balloon Boy and the Decline of the American Mind

Posted 10.16.2009

Balloonboy If you were looking for any news on health care reform, Afghanistan or the President’s trip to New Orleans on television yesterday afternoon or most of last evening, you were out of luck. Everything else was pushed aside by the story of the 6 year old balloon boy, Falcon, flying over Colorado in his dad’s big helium balloon. Of course, he wasn’t actually the balloon boy. Turns out he was the garage boy because when the balloon took off he climbed up into the rafters of his garage and hid in a box. Or, as it may be turning out, (see this update from the New York Times) maybe his dad told him to go hide in the box so they could gin up a media frenzy and regain some of the glory that the whole family was wrapped in when they appeared a few years ago in the reality TV show, Wife Swap.

So, it’s not every day that you have the possibility of a six year old flying along at 10,000 feet in a balloon.  I can see why the cable news channels might run that live. But wall to wall for three hours and then for lots and lots of time after the boy was found OK? Why would they do that? Two words – great video. Anytime you’ve got footage of a giant Jiffy Pop bag sailing across the sky, you’ve got great video. Let’s run it on a continuous loop!

Much as I was after a quick trip to Canada earlier this year, I’m suffering from a case of reimmersion into the American pop news media following a four day trip to London earlier this week. Whether it’s the BBC, ITV or even the SkyNews Sports channel, there’s one word for the Brits’ approach to TV news – sedate. No swooshing graphics, gee whiz maps or sound effects. Just people talking about what’s going on. That’s talking and not shouting or interrupting. A big part of the Sunday morning news shows there consist of the broadcasters sitting together with stacks of newspapers on the tables and floors, reading and commenting on the news of the week. 

One thing I’ve noticed about my British friends over the years is that they all seem incredibly well informed about what’s going on in the world. They usually have an informed point of view on what’s going on in China or Africa or Eastern Europe or just about anywhere. Now I think I understand why. They grew up with print and broadcast media that actually cover those stories and, as such, they developed a knowledge of and curiosity for what’s going on in the rest of the world. I’m not saying that there isn’t any lowest common denominator media in Britain. It seems like at any given time of day there is a Ricki Lake or Sally Jesse Raphael type talk show on TV. (The most popular of these appears to be a British hybrid of Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer called The Jeremy Kyle Show. Truly awful stuff based on the five minutes I was able to withstand.)  My observation, though, is that thoughtful and serious news coverage and conversation seems to be easier to come by in the UK.

So, what does any of this mean for leaders? I’d relate it to one of the basic laws of computer programming – garbage in, garbage out. We need to be careful and aware of the information diet we’re feeding ourselves. The good stuff is out there, we just have to look for it (with the Internet, it’s easier than ever). I think the other thing we have to do is watch out for getting sucked into the noise machine. I don’t realize how easy it is for that to happen until I’m away from it for awhile and come back to it.  

We’ve got a lot of serious work to do in the United States. Approaching that work from a thoughtful rather than a frantic state of mind will be an important determinant of how successful we are. If you’re a leader who wants to make a difference, please don’t let the balloon boy stories bombard your brain. Feed your mind with important and useful things.