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Media's Balloon Boy Coverage Filled With More Hot Air Than Actual Balloon

First Posted: 03/18/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 03:20 PM ET

C Rection Boy

So, in the first place, an apology. On Wednesday, I wrote of the repetition-induced despair that comes from watching eight hours of cable news at a stretch, and said: "Based on my experience, I can tell you that nothing in the world feels better than those rare and looked-forward-to occasions when the news breaks away from their pattern to cover an unfolding, high-speed police chase." Well, as I watched the mesmerizing stressfest that was the Flight Of The Maybe Six-Year Old Navigator across the Colorado plains, the obvious thought was: Be careful what you wish for!

Not long after the saucer-shaped dirigible touched down, Editor And Publisher's Greg Mitchell -- who was never convinced that the balloon contained a human payload -- weighed in on the coverage:

In any case, the press and news agencies reported for over an hour that a boy was in the balloon, without any qualifiers, even though the only witness was a sibling who saw him climb inside.


The AP stories and updates opened with: "A 6-year-old boy climbed into a homemade balloon aircraft in Colorado and floated away Thursday, forcing officials to scramble to figure out how to rescue the boy as the balloon hurtled through the air."

Even when the craft came down, and some doubts about boy's presence had begun to be aired, AP sent a bulletin: "Balloon carrying 6-year-old boy slowly descends into Colorado field; child's fate unclear."

Reuters had reported: "A 6-year-old boy who climbed into a small homemade helium balloon at his family's home was flying out of control above Colorado Thursday as authorities scrambled to try to rescue him."

At least the BBC had added, "reportedly."

Only after the crash did TV hosts stress that reports of a boy in it were "unverified" and raised the possibility of a hoax. Few had raised the issue of whether such a balloon could even lift off with a 50-pound kid inside, and then float the way it did. Some did later. CNN had an expert do the calculations. But, of course, the experts could be wrong.

By the end of the night, after the boy -- the fortuitously-named Falcon Henne -- was found safe and sound in his own home, the Heene family appeared on Larry King Live. Here's the blow-by-blow, from Steve Krakauer at Mediaite:

"Did you hear us calling your name?" Richard [Heene] asked his son midway through the show tonight. Falcon said he did hear his father call his name. And here's the key line, via Balloon Boy himself: "You said...that...we did this for a show."


For some reason, Blitzer let this slide. Richard tried to stumble through an explanation for that blatant moment of clarity. "Whenever we tell him things like, it's a bad thing to do, he does go and hide," he said, which means nothing.


Blitzer finally got around to questioning whether the whole thing was a publicity stunt, a charge which Richard Heene parried with a lot of self-promotion.

As details emerge, we learn more about how Richard Heene has a thing for hoaxes -- under the moniker of "the Psycience Detectives," Richard Heene has posted videos depicting a fake terror attack on the U.S. Capitol, discussions of whether John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his own death, and -- most perplexingly -- a weird exchange about shapeshifting and whether Hillary Clinton is actually some sort of human-reptile being. All of which raises the specter that it was the media, not a six-year old child, that was taken for a ride. Not that it matters!

Other points of interest include:

Credit where credit is due: Fox News' Shepard Smith: Recognize. Smith more or less called the ball correctly, telling his viewers while the balloon was mid-flight that authorities should probably begin their search for Falcon Heene by looking under his bed.

Things people should definitely confirm before they report: I'm hoping that maybe it was just the unreliable flotsam that occasionally beaches itself on Twitter, but seriously: if there was a radio station that was reporting that Heene had fallen out of the balloon, mid-flight, you'd better be ironclad and bulletproof before you report it. And if you were operating off of what this image showed: No. Not good enough!

When you make a commitment, keep it: Hey, CNN! You know, when you tell your viewers "We are not going to show impact. We will be on a delay," maybe you should ACTUALLY DO THAT.


Time For A Balloon Boy Media Ethics Panel!: Mediaite's Colby Hall says that even though the boy was found safe at home, the coverage of the incident was "still wrong." "Not only did cable news programmers make a risky decision in covering this story live," Hall says, "they may have inadvertently aired his death."

Know what is a pretty good sign that the boy is not in the balloon, though? When authorities, having secured the balloon, start hitting it with shovels and indiscriminately stabbing it with pitchforks!

Inappropriate remark that turned out to be potentially prescient: CJR's Megan Garber dinged MSNBC's David Shuster for saying something that may end up being not far from the mark: "The compartment is empty, which would explain, then, I suppose, the way they are handling it -- trying to officially sort of verify that. And then that gets, obviously, to a couple of questions. Did the boy fall out along the way, or is this part of some hoax, an effort for attention by the family a lot of people are already suggesting is a strange family to begin with?"

Inappropriate remark that will remain awkward and embarrassing no matter what happens: Whoever it was on MSNBC that said, at about 2:40 pm.: "It is like a horrific version of the movie Up, that was released earlier this year in which there was an unwitting passenger, the cartoon movie of a young man on board or a young boy on board this house as it went up into the air." Uhm...no.

Anyone know any experts? Hey, it's fun to speculate! But did it occur to anyone to maybe contact someone who could offer something definitive or scientific on whether or not it was even possible for the balloon to have been carrying a child as payload? Seems to me that there are heights and widths and volumes and masses that could have been calculated, perhaps removing a huge worry from the minds of viewers! Anyone have the number for the MIT Physics Department? The editorial staff of Popular Mechanics? The Mythbusters? It might have been, as they say, edifying. Instead, we had stuff like Fox News, crowdsourcing solutions: DROP A NET ON IT FROM A HELICOPTER!

New adventures in news justifications: Did anyone catch the contentious conversation between my boss (Full disclosure: Arianna Huffington is the co-founder of The Huffington Post) and MSNBC's Ed Schultz last night? Asked by Arianna to explain why the story demanded wall-to-wall attention after the boy was found safe, Schultz responded: "You don't find too many self-described scientists who believe in extra-terrestrials that end up with a kid involved in a prank with a balloon that goes across the sky." I have to hand it to Ed: YOU SURE DON'T. Clearly, more reporters need to be seeking such stories out!

For the sake of political-spectrum ecumenicalism, I'll note that Laura Ingraham's media criticism is appropriately fierce:

Perspective, please. But my favorite part of the exchange came when Schultz insisted that MSNBC had gotten "the hottest interview that's out there... someone who can give us some insight on the family." But that "hot interview" was with Sheree Silver, who co-participated on a reality show called Wife Swap with Richard Heene. I'm sure that she wasn't simply attempting to horn in on the spectacle, at all!

Anyway, that's a rundown of this confusing and bizarre time in our lives. Not to worry though! Slate has a Balloon Boy Explainer up. The next time this happens, we are going to totally have our shit together!

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not? Also, please send tips to tv@huffingtonpost.com -- learn more about our media monitoring project here.]

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