Balloon Dad to Pose for Playgirl

It's my own fault, I know, for watching Showbiz Tonight over the weekend, but I couldn't find the news on any other channel, and I'd forgotten that HLN, better known as CNN's Headline News, had turned its definition of journalism over to Nancy Grace, host of "television's only justice themed/interview/debate show, designed for those interested in the breaking crime news of the day"; to Robin Meade, author of Morning Sunshine!: How to Radiate Confidence and Feel It, Too; to Jane Velez-Mitchell, author of iWant: My Journey from Addiction and Overconsumption to a Simpler, Honest Life, who has been "stand[ing] up for the powerless, and speak[ing] for those who don't have a voice" on HLN since Glenn Beck left it for Fox News. And, of course, to Showbiz Tonight.

At the top of the show, they teased a story about a cartoon making fun of Jessica Simpson's weight that Fox had run on its NFL Sunday program. In the skit, an animated version of Dallas Cowboys running back Marion Barber says, "Man, I still can't believe [Cowboys quarterback] Tony [Romo] dated Jessica Simpson, even after she blew up bigger than [Cowboys offensive tackle] Flozell Adams!"

Jessica Simpson, in case you have been reading books during the past decade, is a singer who became famous for a reality show, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, in which she co-starred with then-husband Nick Lachey. Subsequently she has been famous for being famous, for pumping too much Restylane into her lips, for jinxing Romo's gridiron performance, and for, well, blowing up bigger than Flozell Adams.

When I saw the cartoon clip at the beginning of Showbiz Tonight, instead of changing the channel, something made me count "one" to myself, and linger. Sure enough, a few minutes later, they showed the cartoon again. Before the segment about the cartoon finally arrived, there had also been showings three, four, five and six. And just as surely as I knew it would be shown a seventh time, I also knew what would come out from Showbiz Tonight host A.J. Hammer's mouth: "They should be ashamed of themselves."

HLN, which aired the clip seven times in order to keep suckers like me watching, was calling Fox shameful for airing it once.

None of this, of course, is surprising. But it helps to put the balloon boy hoax in perspective. The CNN mothership got punked by Richard Heene because the story was too good to verify, and Heene punked CNN because he wanted to leverage the stunt into a Heene family reality show. If that doesn't work out, maybe Playgirl will pay him to pose. Why not? Levi Johnston isn't the only hot dude in town, and getting money for letting strangers look at your junk is pretty much the same thing that Nick and Jessica and all the other pretty exhibitionists are all about.

If it were only about money, it wouldn't be as dangerous to democracy as it is, but it's also about attention. People have only so much bandwidth. Media have only so much airtime. The lobbyists who are systematically gutting the powers of the new consumer financial protection agency are counting on the public's being distracted by infotainment. The Wall Street firms partying like it's 1999 are relying on people's addiction to stories about little girls down in wells and little boys up in balloons. The Halliburtons and Blackwaters who are richly profiting from tragedy are betting that the nutter debate about the Mayan calendar's prediction of a 2012 apocalypse will displace a sober debate about apocalypse now. When Big Pharma buys Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars, it depends on the media's being bored by old news about special interests, and being floored by breaking news about Jon & Kate Plus 8.

Right now Pakistan's army is mounting a huge offensive against terrorists in South Waziristan. This won't help American troops in Afghanistan, because the three major terrorist networks attacking us there -- the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Hizb-i-Islami Galbuddin -- operate from other areas of Pakistan. I know this from reading an article by Mark Sappenfield in the Christian Science Monitor, from which I copied out those unfamiliar words letter by letter.

I don't expect Showbiz Tonight, and I guess I shouldn't even expect HLN, to pound those odd names into my noggin with the same relentlessness that put Jessica Simpson there. But I have the sinking feeling that when President Obama announces his plans for Afghanistan, the consequence of the media diet that the average American consumes will be that most people listening to him will know more about Levi Johnston's three-week moose meat diet and workout plan than about those bewildering terrorist groups with all those q's. It's that, and not the seven replays of the fat-jibe cartoon, that will be shameful.

This is my column from The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. You can read more of my columns here, and e-mail me there if you'd like.