03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Think Again: It's a Bird. It's a Plane. It's...Cable News

Not long ago, cable news cameras turned their focus skyward to an almost celestial body hurling itself across the sky. Broadcasters watched breathlessly as it landed. They were agog at the image, godlike in its apparent significance. Was it a bird? Was it a plane? No, it was a hoax.

And yet for days after, networks remained obsessed with this decided nonevent. It turned out that it had all been an elaborate hoax, a photo opportunity. President George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq, dressed up like Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," and had journalist after journalist panting to his alleged manliness (and manhood). We kid you not. (Here's an extremely excited G. Gordon Liddy to Chris Matthews, perhaps forgetting about the invention of the protective cup.)

Meanwhile, even the less aroused journalists who might have exposed that charade for what it was at the time offered themselves up as members of an unquestioningly admiring audience.

Oh wait, you thought we meant "Balloon Boy." Okay, we'll play your game. All of a sudden, even the people who make their living on cable news have apparently figured out that the story pretty much sucks. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham admits:

What this does is, I think, it kind of puts egg on all of our faces. We all become part of the media problem. I'll throw myself right into the mix. Because you really can't take your eyes off it, but meanwhile you know there are all these really important things happening, not only in our country but around the world.

For the cable news networks, "Balloon Boy" was a perfect story. It made for spellbinding viewing that was cheap to produce, and was more fun than they've had since O.J. Simpson's infamous "Flight of the White Bronco." The networks did not verify the validity of the story that a homemade hot air balloon was carrying a young boy through the clouds. Instead, they took the story they had been given and showed the riveting pictures of the balloon in flight. It was indicative of "the media problem." .....

You can read the rest of Eric Alterman and Mickey Ehrlich's analysis in their recent article, "Think Again: It's a Bird. It's a Plane. It's...Cable News"

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

Crossposted with the Center for American Progress with Mickey Ehrlich, a freelance writer and an English teacher at Kingsborough Community College.