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On the Balloon Side Show,
The Infotaining Media, and Representative Democracy

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he argues that the coverage of Balloon-Boy wasn’t all bad. See his previous OUPblogs here.

Last week, America came to a stand-still as we stood enraptured by television images of a runaway balloon carrying, so we thought, a six-year-old boy. Flimsy as the silver contraption appeared, we gladly suspended all disbelief that the balloon contained enough helium to be carrying a boy within so we could enjoy the side show. (Just as we did for Pixar’s animated movie, “Up,” which featured an old man who used balloons to move his house to a South American paradise.) So for almost two hours, most of the major news networks displaced all coverage of “hard” news to cover what Latimer County Sheriff Jim Alderman has now concluded to be a “publicity stunt.” And I’m going to argue that this was not a bad thing.

As the Balloon Boy story continued to dominate the weekend news cycle, the president and his advisers continued to deliberate on whether or not to send more troops into Afghanistan, and Senators worked behind the scenes to reconcile two different bills on healthcare. So let it be said that our “watchdog” media will switch its attention as soon as it is thrown an infotaining bone. But this is not necessarily a bad thing as long as we are clear-eyed about the media’s priorities. Instead, I think there is something strangely comforting that we allow ourselves such trivial pleasures. If we do not need an ever-vigilant watchdog, it is because we believe – by revealed preference – that government will mind government’s business, and we can tend to our own. Better no coverage of “hard” news than bad coverage, I say.

And this is exactly what the media did at least momentarily last week even as the President and Congress debated world and country-changing policies. Instead of another round of predictable punditry, or fact-checking of the CBO’s estimates of heath-care reform, we were fed images of a helium-filled balloon shaped like a UFO traversing the Colorado landscape. As we are with car chases, we, and therefore the media, were drawn to the balloon chase like flies are drawn to a light. We weren’t so much interested in the outcome – indeed knowledge of the outcome would have waken us up from our trance – as we were in the process, which was visually enrapturing.

For over a year we have watched a presidential campaign turn into a permanent campaign, and the American public is fatigued. We see this in Barack Obama’s dwindling approval numbers; and we also see it in our captivation by a drifting balloon. We are tired, and we are withdrawing from the public political sphere. The infotaining media detected this, and gave us a welcome reprieve.

And perhaps this is as it should be. Ours is a representative, and not a direct democracy. We vote and delegate; they, the elected officials, decide. The constitutional calendar is very clear that the people speak only every 2, 4, and 6 years. As far as the US constitution is concerned, our voices do not matter when we speak at any other time at the federal level. (Though our voices do matter at the state level where such devices as recall and refederanda are sanctioned by state constitutions.) If we didn’t believe this, than we have to deal with the conundrum that if last year’s elections were held in the second week of September, John McCain would have won. Clearly then, what you and I believed on November 4, 2008 matters much more than what you and I believe in October, 2009 (or September, 2008). Opinion polls may capture majority or minority sentiment at any moment in time, but these sentiments (should) have no import on constitutionally sanctioned officers exercising their delegated powers.

The deliberation of troop increases and health-care reform involve complex proceedings in closed-door war room meetings and conference committees reconciling details many Americans know and care little about. Such decisions make bad television, so maybe we shouldn’t try to force a message into an unreceptive genre lest we alter the message. Maybe those we put in charge should simply be let alone to do their job, for our constitution envisioned and sanctioned a low-effort, Rip Van Winkle approach to citizen participation. Sometimes we care a lot and we participate, but other times we tune out; and perhaps that is just as it should be. Last week, as we sat enraptured by the alleged antics of Balloon Boy, we embraced the implicit satisfactions of a representative democracy.

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