On Sunday night, seventh-generation daredevil Nik Wallenda walked 1,400 feet on a wire stretched high above the windy Little Colorado River Gorge. While his family and prominent megachurch leader Joel Osteen watched from nearby, Wallenda slowly made his way across without a net or harness, 35 years after his great-grandfather died during a similar stunt in Puerto Rico.
The Discovery Channel broadcast Wallenda’s attempt with a 10-second delay in case the network had to cut away in the event of a fall, which would have been fatal … barring a miracle.
It was the biggest thing happening on Sunday night, in spite of the Mad Men season finale. Hashtags and keywords related to the stunt were top trends on Twitter, both nationally and worldwide. According to preliminary Nielsen ratings, 13 million people watched the event live on Discovery, and that’s without including international viewers and those who watched via the web. Mad Men, by contrast, had 2.7 million live viewers.
But perhaps even more memorable than the feat itself was what the 34-year-old stuntman was saying while he was doing it. Wallenda, who was wearing a microphone, said the name “Jesus” 60-plus times while on the highwire. He pleaded: “Help me relax, Lord.” He praised: “God, you are so good.” He expressed his gratitude: “Thank you for calming that cable, God.”
Wallenda’s walk — and his accompanying religious invocations — were what everyone was talking about on Sunday night and Monday morning. But it’s days later, and the stunt and Wallenda’s Christianity have been all but ignored by some liberal news outlets, which, by comparison, have have expended many thousands of words in the past on stunts by illusionist David Blaine. So clearly it’s not that they think stunts aren’t newsworthy.
Monday’s edition of the New York Times contained not a word about Wallenda’s stunt. On Tuesday, the paper published a tidy 496-word item in its business section focusing on the ratings and making no mention of Wallenda’s beliefs or what he said while on the wire.
National Public Radio gave the stunt an online preview and merely updated that item on Sunday night with the following:
Nik Wallenda successfully walked the 1,500 feet across the Colorado River Gorge in Arizona on Sunday. The high-wire daredevil, famous for similar walks like the one he did at Niagara Falls, made the precarious trek live on television and without a net or safety line. The walk took Wallenda 22 minutes of edging his way along the 2-inch-thick cable.
The Chicago Sun-Times dedicated a dry 122 words to the walk on page 20 of its Monday paper:
Florida aerialist Nik Wallenda has completed a tightrope walk that took him a quarter mile over the Little Colorado River Gorge in northeastern Arizona.
Wallenda performed the stunt late Sunday on a 2-inch-thick steel cable, 1,500 feet above the river on the Navajo Nation near the Grand Canyon. He wasn’t wearing a harness.
The event was broadcast live on the Discovery Channel.
The 34-year-old Wallenda is a seventh-generation high-wire artist and is part of the famous “Flying Wallendas” circus family – a clan that is no stranger to death-defying feats. Wallenda says he has wondered what it would be like to cross an area he considers the Grand Canyon since he was a teenager.
Now he knows.
Meanwhile, Matt Lauer and the Today show crew interviewed Wallenda on Monday morning and managed to avoid any annoying religious outbursts. Co-host Natalie Morales deftly steered the conversation away from religion, saying, “We also heard you say your prayers many, many times over. What else goes through your mind?” In other words, “Please, please, Mr. Wallenda. Let’s talk about something other than God.”
Of course, plenty of blogs and social media users took shots at the easy target of Wallenda’s Christianity. The most notable example of Wallenda-mockery came from the online presence of New York Magazine, which produced the following video compilation titled “All the Times Nik Wallenda Talked to Jesus While Tightrope-Walking Across the Canyon”:
Imagine how the situation would have been different if Wallenda were a yoga-practicing Buddhist. No doubt he’d be all over the media talking about how his quiet meditations and downward-facing dogs made his miraculous feats possible. Anthony Bourdain and him would hang out at ashrams and food stalls in India. But bring up Jesus, and everyone turns the other way.