The Media Today

The unbearable lightness of the Balloon coverage

February 6, 2023

Are Twitter’s birthday balloons broken?Weather grounds balloons Sunday morning, 2023 Hudson Hot Air Affair still a success.” “Release of balloons would be banned under new Florida bill.” Across the US, various balloons have been in the news in recent days, cropping up in stories about, for instance, the perceived mirthlessness of Elon Musk and the wellbeing of sea turtles. But recent headlines have been dominated by one balloon, in particular—to the extent that, as sometimes happens with otherwise common words in news coverage, it picked up a definite article and shed associated adjectives, becoming simply “The Balloon.” (See also: “The Queue” that formed in London after the death of the Queen.) In case you were living under a rock last week, I’m referring to the suspected Chinese spy balloon that floated from West to East over the US, sparking a diplomatic ruckus and capturing the attention of a nation. (Incidentally, if you were living under a rock last week, congrats: you were safe from The Balloon. Probably.)

The US news media’s first recorded sighting of The Balloon (that I can find, anyway) came last Wednesday, when Larry Mayer of the Billings Gazette, a local newspaper in Montana, photographed it as it appeared in the sky over that state. At that point, Mayer didn’t know what he was photographing. President Biden had already been briefed on The Balloon but his administration had decided not to go public with the sighting just yet; that changed on Thursday, when the Gazette published Mayer’s photo and it became, as Bloomberg put it, “only a matter of time until national media would pick up on the report.” (Not that the national media has a good recent track record of picking up local news stories about mystifying objects full of hot air, but I digress.) The confirmation of The Balloon triggered a chain reaction of diplomatic consequences: Chinese officials claimed that it was a meteorological balloon that had been blown off course; no one in the US really bought this, not least Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, who canceled a forthcoming trip to China. It also triggered loud outrage in right-wing political and media circles. (Indeed, per Bloomberg, the outrage was a big part of the reason that Blinken scrapped his China trip.) “SHOOT DOWN THE BALLOON,” Donald Trump yelled into Truth Social. “POP THIS BALLOON!” the front page of the New York Post demanded.

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The Biden administration may eventually have gone public with the news of The Balloon, but beyond that—and the insistence that The Balloon did not pose any immediate military threat—officials did not disclose much. At a press briefing on Friday, which CNN carried live, Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, mostly declined to elaborate as reporters peppered him with questions. “Can you confirm, the photos that are out there, that this is not the Man in the Moon and that is the actual balloon?” one journalist asked. “I’m certainly aware of photos being posted online,” Ryder responded, with an admirably straight face. “I’m not going to get into the business of confirming where those photos come from.” Another reporter asked if the location of The Balloon was classified; Ryder acknowledged that “the public certainly has the ability to look up in the sky and see where the balloon is,” but declined to tell people where to look. “We’re just not going to get into an hour-by-hour where the balloon is,” Ryder added.

Meanwhile, cable news was palpably desperate to get into an hour-by-hour of where The Balloon was. At times, the coverage evoked that of the OJ Bronco chase, if the Bronco had been sensitive to changing wind dynamics and the pundits invited on air to talk about it had had military medals strapped to their chests; more directly, it recalled coverage of the “Balloon Boy” incident of 2009, when a balloon that was said to have a child inside, but actually did not, drifted over Colorado. The spy Balloon was “the perfect story for American cable TV,” Jeremy Goldkorn, the editor in chief of the China Project, noted on Friday—because, in addition to being something mysterious moving through space, “it’s from China, it’s got spy cameras, and it full of hot air or happy gas. This is going to go on for days.” As it happened, The Balloon, if not the media hubbub around it, met its end on Saturday, when the Pentagon finally took the advice of the New York Post and shot it down, over the Atlantic. Major networks had hours of special coverage. “Our long national nightmare is over,” MSNBC’s Katy Tur said. “We got The Balloon.”

Actually, Tur didn’t say this—the comedian Chloe Fineman did, in character as Tur on Saturday Night Live. Fineman-as-Tur interviewed Kenan Thompson in character as General William Hamilton (“The Balloon was somehow able to get past our West Coast anti-balloon defense system: the Seattle Space Needle”), and then interviewed Bowen Yang in character as The Balloon itself, bobbing around with water wings in a CGI sea. “I entertain you guys for four days and then get shot by Biden?” Yang/The Balloon said, incredulously. “Everyone’s being surveilled constantly, but it’s always Shoot the balloon and never Unplug Alexa. If you care so much about your data, why do you all keep your bank passwords in the Notes app?”

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We live in an age in which the boundaries between satire and real news often seem to blur—a function, no doubt, of the timeless value of satire in skewering our political condition, but also, probably, of mass media collapsing the distance between news consumers and the world around us, putting it right before our eyes in all its absurdity. The Balloon encapsulated this dynamic better than any other recent news story that I can remember. Journalists sometimes acted as if they were in on the joke, raising eyebrows and stuffing their copy with puns, even though (as SNL made explicit) they often felt like the butt of one. The whole story had a sheen of farce. “The balloon story feels warm and reassuring to me,” The Economist’s Mike Bird wrote on Twitter. “It’s been a while since we’ve had an international news story that’s inherently silly.”

And yet this inherent silliness, while undeniable, was tangled up together with an inherent seriousness, itself wired into weighty questions of geopolitics. If the story played to our human impulse to follow mysterious stuff across the sky, it also tapped into much darker impulses, especially—though by no means exclusively—as it was covered in right-wing media. The key question as to whether the facts justified all the hype got a bit lost in, well, all the hype. At least some prominent observers didn’t think so. “Hourly news reports make it sound like a replay of Pearl Harbor,” the national-security reporter Jeff Stein wrote in his newsletter, Spy Talk, but Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, told him that, “really, it’s not a big deal.” Others—not least Bowen Yang, crossing that porous news-satire line again—noted the relative insignificance of The Balloon compared to the electronic privacy violations of which Chinese officials are capable.

Wherever The Balloon slots into it, the story of Chinese surveillance and espionage, which has attracted some dogged recent investigative journalism, is undoubtedly important. So, too, is the much broader story of US-China tensions, which is deeply serious and which, rightly, infused coverage of The Balloon to a significant extent, even if The Balloon itself need not necessarily have attracted such significant coverage. This bigger story, however, has also been pumped full of a lot of hot air—not to mention greatly more harmful and insidious rhetoric—of the political variety. The press has a responsibility to cover it unflinchingly, but also carefully and proportionately, and not to privilege empty outrage-mongering or whatever makes the best TV. As Ben Rhodes, a former top foreign-policy official in the Obama White House, put it, “the US political and media response to this balloon is not a particularly good sign for rational decision making on China in the years to come.”

Over the weekend, Katie Rogers, of the New York Times, wrote that The Balloon “briefly called us back to the early days of collective social-media viewing, when it was still novel to watch something bizarre unfold on television alongside a cascade of tweets and cackle-inducing memes.” Those early days coincided with a geopolitical moment that was very different to the “new Cold War” atmosphere prevalent in much modern-day media coverage. Cable news was around at the end of the last Cold War, though it was in a relative state of infancy. Even then, it was obvious that the ways we consume—and cover—stories about great-power competition can, ultimately, shape the terms of that competition itself, and we have a responsibility, at least, to keep that in mind as this new era moves forward. We do not have to be balloons against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Other notable stories:

  • Julia Angwin, a co-founder and top editor at The Markup, an investigative newsroom focused on the world of tech, is leaving the site to pursue other projects. On her way out, Angwin shared ten “journalistic lessons for the algorithmic age” that she says she learned from “building a newsroom that integrated engineers with journalists and sought to use a new model for accountability journalism: the scientific method.”
  • Semafor announced that it is hiring Jay Solomon, a longtime former foreign-affairs correspondent at the Wall Street Journal, as its global security editor. Ben Smith, Semafor’s editor in chief, noted that Solomon is returning to journalism following “a hiatus that began when was the victim of a hack-and-smear operation in 2016.” In 2018, Solomon wrote a fascinating account of what happened for CJR.
  • The writer Salman Rushdie, who has long faced the threat of assassination over his work, sat down with David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, for his first interviews since he was stabbed at a literary festival in New York State last year. “I sensed conflicting instincts in Rushdie when he replied to questions about his health,” Remnick writes. “There was the instinct to move on… and the instinct to be absolutely frank.”
  • The Guardian’s Pippa Crerar spoke with Josie Stewart, who lost her job as a British government official after she gave an anonymous interview to the BBC criticizing the government’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and was later inadvertently outed by the BBC as its source. Stewart is now “taking the government to court to test legal protections for whistleblowers,” Crerar reports.
  • And for the Times, Zachary Small reports on a spate of resignations from the US chapter of the International Association of Art Critics, with board members quitting over the organization’s “failure to enact a diversity plan that members had supported since the George Floyd protests in 2020.” The association, Small writes, has been weakened in recent years by cutbacks that have shrunk the number of art critics at major outlets.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.