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How About a Little Coverage of the Millions of At-Risk Kids Not Trapped in a Balloon (or Hiding in the Attic)?

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No matter what happens in the unfolding legal saga of the Heene family, the most appropriate response to the whole matter was that of Falcon Heene. He vomited. Twice. On national TV. Well, let me just say that Falcon speaks for me.

I had to stifle the same urge as I watched so much of the media devote so much of their resources to the story of the boy NOT in the balloon.

And, sure, I know that asking the media to have some sense of perspective on a story like this is like asking a dog not to bark. It's in their nature to give breathless, wall-to-wall coverage to these kinds of stories. But, even knowing this, I was shocked how little changed in the volume and tone of the coverage even after it was known the boy wasn't in the balloon. Even then, after we knew the balloon was empty, they kept running footage of the balloon, hour after hour.

As Bill Maher said on Real Time, "they're calling him Balloon Boy, which is so stupid, because the one thing we know about this kid, is that he was not in a balloon."

We actually know a lot more about Falcon. And we certainly know how concerned every anchor covering the story was about his welfare.

If ever we needed an example of the difference between sentimentality and empathy, this was it. As the story unfolded on Thursday, Wolf Blitzer told us how "deeply worried" he was about Falcon, and that he was "totally fearing the worst." Rick Sanchez talked about the "big hug" he'd give his own child if it happened to him (does Rick have a giant balloon in his backyard too?). And one Fox anchor expressed relief that a skydiver she was interviewing while Falcon's fate was still up in the air (sorry!) gave her "a little bit of hope" about the weather conditions the balloon was flying in because she was "worried about how cold this child might be."

Who knew the media were so "deeply worried" about the welfare of children? Well, as it turns out, their concern only extends to children in certain circumstances -- such as when they are thought to be trapped in a runaway balloon. Or when they have been washed up on U.S. shores in an inner tube and are forcibly repatriated to Cuba.

Remember Elian Gonzales? Watching the media's collective palpitations over Balloon Boy -- even after he turned out to be Attic Boy -- my mind immediately did a flashback to 2000 and the emotion-laden coverage of Elian, including Diane Sawyer standing on her head.

Back then, I felt the same uneasy feeling about what it takes for the media to care about at-risk kids.

In the midst of the hysteria over Elian, Jonathan Kozol came out with a book called Ordinary Resurrections, which featured the moving story of a boy named Elio who was the same age as Elian.

He was, as I wrote in a column in May 2000, a "little boy... living in the South Bronx, surrounded by gunfire, families being evicted, hungry people begging in the street. His mother works at a drugstore near St. Ann's church; his father is 'upstate' -- South Bronx shorthand for prison."

And while Elian was on the cover of Time magazine three times, no news magazines were writing about the thousands of Elios around America. "Why do we feel so much for Elian and so little for Elio?" I asked. "Why are we doing everything we can -- trips to Disney World, Nintendo games, playmates flown in from Cuba -- to make Elian happy, while leaving Elio to fend for himself?"

It wasn't a rhetorical question. I didn't know the answer then and I don't know the answer now.

The media are addicted to small-bore, high-drama stories like these. Two years after Elian, I wrote about the media binging on the Robert Blake trial and called for an intervention to help the media break its ersatz crisis habit. My call wasn't successful, to put it mildly.

Three years after that, the media devoted countless hours to the case of Natalee Holloway, the young woman who went missing in Aruba. "When defending these choices," I wrote in June of 2005, "news execs inevitably fall back on the old 'we're just giving the people what they want.'"

And not surprisingly, they're saying the same thing now. Which was why, when I went on the Ed Schultz show to talk about Afghanistan, I ended up spending most of the segment talking instead about a runaway balloon with no boy inside.

I find the media's obsession with these non-stories especially galling when they lead to endless agonizing over the welfare of a child -- agonizing that is sorely missing when there isn't a hot air balloon or inner tube in shark-infested waters involved.

So now that we know that Falcon is safe, how about repurposing some of that concern for, say:

-- the over 1.5 million children who are homeless.

-- the 42 percent of homeless children who are under the age of 6.

-- the one in six homeless children who suffers from an emotional problem.

It doesn't have to be wall-to-wall coverage, but how about some coverage of the 75 to 100 percent increase in the number of children who are newly homeless because of the foreclosure crisis? Or the 13 million American children living in poverty?

Not going to happen, you say? What if we built a giant balloon, put all 13 million of them in it, and just let it float away? Even better, let's just say that we did. It'll be a win-win-win. The news producers will have a giant balloon to shoot, the news anchors will have a fresh outlet for all that concern, and millions of kids in desperate need of some concern, attention, and time in the media spotlight will finally get it.