I'm a fan of using kooky incidents as a jumping point to ponder the Big Questions of Our Time, but Frank Rich's half-hearted defense of Balloon Boy's dad Richard Heene counts as an overt abuse of the form, on many levels. I simply cannot accept Heene as Rich paints him, a man ground down by our economy and striving for the perceived payoffs of fame to the point of the evil misuse of his family. Rich leaves out inconvenient information about Heene that might undermine his view of Heene as the everyman gone wrong. For instance, Rich ignores that Heene is a barking-mad misogynist.
This might not immediately seem like important information when considering Frank's thesis about reality-TV shows, the economy, and the growing lack of respect for the truth. But it is relevant, and I suspect that if Heene were more of a white supremacist than a misogynist, Rich would have immediately seen the connection. All of his examples of the collapse between truth and reality on the political front come from the right, after all. More importantly, there's a long history in the West of white-supremacist groups with tendencies toward fantasy perpetrating hoaxes like counterfeiting money or luring people into thinking income tax is unconstitutional. White supremacists have been blurring the line between fantasy and reality and using the results to get attention and even money for a long time.
Richard Heene isn't a neo-Nazi or anything like that, but his attitudes towards women are reminiscient of those groups' attitudes toward nonwhite or non-Christian people. Heene's loathing and hatred of women is something to behold , and behold it you can, because he's left a number of videos out there to document his nuttiness. He exhibits a visceral disgust toward women, and obsesses over Hillary Clinton, the calling card of misogynists. Most disturbingly, he coached his three sons into recording a video about the dangers of "pussification" and homosexuality. In other words, Heene is a right-wing crank, and his willingness to perpetuate a hoax and arrogance at thinking he could pull it off are classic traits of the right-wing crank.
The line between right-wing cranks and charlatans is thin indeed, and much of the time, it's invisible. Under his real name Michael Weiner, right-wing crank and talk show host Michael Savage peddles homeopathic medicine and trends towards denying the reality of mental illnesses such as autism. "Men's rights" activists like Glenn Sacks feature endless ads on their shows from family lawyers who make a nice living getting bitter men to sue their ex-wives over and over again. Visit some right-wing blogs and take an eyeful of the ads selling gold and survivalist supplies. Austin dwellers like myself should be familiar with our own famous paranoid conspiracy theorist Alex Jones , who makes a nice living from selling books and videos about international conspiracies.
As tempting as it is to suggest that Heene represents the next step in reality-TV excesses, I'm afraid he belongs to a longer tradition of right-wing charlatans trying to turn their weirdness into financial gain.