10/16/2009 03:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'Balloon Boy,' Meghan McCain dominate Twitter while media gorge on the drama

It was as if the news media had enough and just couldn't take it anymore. After weeks of grinding coverage of the health care debate, bad news from Afghanistan and the bizarre antics of various political leaders, much of the mainstream news media seemed to come unhinged on Thursday afternoon in a Twitter-fueled explosion over two stories.

The first was the saga of Balloon Boy, little Falcon Heene, who was thought to have taken off from his Colorado home in a helium balloon, only to be found safe hours later. The second was the uproar over a photo posted on Twitter by Meghan McCain (pictured), former Republican presidential candidate John McCain's daughter, in which the blond 24-year-old is seen wearing a revealing tank-top.

CNN and other cable news networks devoted significant coverage to the drama of the lost six-year-old, with chopper-borne news cameras tracking the balloon's every move. Hours later, the boy was found safe, hiding in his attic. Subsequently, it was revealed that little Falcon's father had appeared on the reality-TV show "Wife Swap" and was known for his wacky scientific experiments and "storm-chasing," which would presumably explain why he had a helium balloon in his back yard.

During the 9 p.m. hour, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, sitting in for Larry King, interviewed the Heene family -- including little Falcon -- about the experience. Wolf pressed the family over whether the incident was all a trumped-up publicity stunt. At one point, little Falcon can be heard allegedly saying to his father, "you said we were doing this for a show."

At a time when the U.S. is facing serious crises on a number of fronts, foreign and domestic, how could the major news networks -- owned by media giants News Corp (NWS), GE (GE) and Time Warner (TWX) -- devote so much airtime to an empty balloon floating over the Rocky Mountains?

Easily, wrote Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher. "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," Mitchell wrote. "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."

Meanwhile, the Internet, led by Twitter, went wild with Balloon Boy activity, which of course included the usual tasteless commentary. In fact, the story was driven in large point by the Internet. "Balloon Boy" became the No. 1 Google trend, indicating millions of people searching for information on the story, while the Twitter hashtag #balloonboy saw very heavy tweeting, as millions collectively kvetched over little Falcon's fate.

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