Balloon boy story just father's hot air

So, what exactly has America turned into?

I mean, it used to be that parents went out of their way to protect their kids from harm.

Growing up in Newton, there were pretty much two major forms of recreation -- politics and fishing.

Politics was often conducted at the rock fence that surrounded the county courthouse, where those with influence would discuss goings-on with those they felt they could influence.

Fishing, well, a lot of folks liked to fish on the Flint River, a swift brown waterway that was deceptive in its potential for being a place where you could go and hurt yourself if you weren't real careful.

What my Momma would often say as I got ready to pedal off on my bike was, "Elliott, I don't want you hanging around down there at the courthouse."

Since that was where grown-up talk tended to be, especially at election time, I'd respond with a plaintive, "Aw, c'mon ..."

Which is exactly as far as I would get before she added, "And you better not get anywhere close to that river if you know what's good for you."

This was code for cause and effect, 'cause I knew if I got caught at the river, the effect would be, at best, unpleasant. Besides, I didn't much like fishing anyway because the fish invariably avoided anything I dropped into water.

Today, however, some folks apparently wouldn't be above encouraging their kid to swim from Newton to Bainbridge if they thought it'd get them a TV show.

The latest installment of lame parents was last week when Richard and Mayumi Heene apparently cooked up a scheme of Gosselinnian proportions -- pretend their 6-year-old son was riding a homemade Jiffy-Pop-shaped helium balloon that looked like a reject from a bad 1950s sci-fi flick into the Wild Blue Yonder.

Countless breathless cable and network TV frames later, turns out the 6-year-old, Falcon, was hiding out on terra firma the whole time.

Which all resulted in a nice little news cycle package: Family tragedy averted.

The only problem? The whole story stank like a badly overpopped tinpan of popcorn, and when Falcon, who got sick to his stomach twice talking about the whole ordeal, slipped up and said his father had done it for "the show," everybody knew where the odor was coming from.

The court system is still determining what to do, but the court of public opinion doesn't have to wait. It's pretty clear that this guy, bitten hard by the fame bug after his family appeared on one of those cheapskate reality shows, is willing to let his kid endure crippling emotional distress just so he can land another TV gig.

And this comes after the Goshlins, Goblins or whatever their name is dragged their eight kids in front of the camera, along with their detailed cheating and divorcing issues. And that Octomom woman's working on a show to exploit her children, treating them more like a litter of puppies instead of babies.

Actually, I think dogs care more about their offspring. When is all this garbage going to end? When some loving parent sends his or her child into an arena with a plastic sword to fight a hungry lion?

I understand that TV viewership is fragmenting and that what passes as "reality" TV is a lot cheaper and easier to throw together than producing quality written and acted entertainment, but I'll never understand the fascination some people have with watching other people's lives play out in a way that is clearly abnormal and unhealthy, especially youngsters who are more members of a cast than children in a family. I'd never even heard of the Gooberlings or whatever their name is and their eight victims ... er, children ... until all the hoopla about their divorce hit the news wires.

My only thought on that is it's too bad a judge can't impose the death penalty in a divorce case. Maybe that's something Congress can look at.

And I know Congress and the president have plenty of issues to deal with right now, but maybe they find time between fundraisers take a look at, say, outlawing child exploitation and mental distress for pure-out parental egotism and profit. At the very least, they should go into whatever health care reform legislation they end up passing and impose a stiff, direct tax on the TV networks that insist on broadcasting this brain-mashing tripe to pay for the psychiatric treatment these kids will need later on when they figure out how they've been callously used and duped by the very people who should have been protecting them.

If not, maybe the government could invest in a few more of those tinfoil balloons and let Jon and Kate and Richard and Mayumi and Octomom all go for a ride on them.

Momma said it'd be OK. Really.

E-mail Jim Hendricks at jim.hendricks@albanyherald.com.