Balloon boy story shows ugliness of reporting news-in-progress, not TV news excess
Now that 6-year-old Falcon Heene has been found alive and cowering in a box in his family's attic, it's easy to bust on TV news channels for spending more than two hours focused on a runaway helium balloon they thought contained the little boy.
Comic Paula Poundstone had one of the best lines, delivered on Twitter moments ago: "The people on CNN seemed so bummed that they found that kid. What are they going to talk about? Wolf Blitzer really has a situation now."
And MSNBC's Ed Schultz looked like he was about to burst a blood vessel during a conversation with the Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington, defending the channel's continuous coverage even though Huffington was only criticizing the decision to keep talking about little Falcon after he was found.
"No one wants to see a little boy fall from 8,000 feet," Schultz thundered, drowning out Huffington's steady attempts to get a word in edgewise. "I think undoutbedly we did the right thing." Of course, if nobody wanted to see the kid fall, why cover it at all? (Worth noting: when Schultz said this, CNN and Fox News had both moved on to other stories).
But I get what he was driving at. As the balloon flew across the Colorado sky, police were telling journalists the boy's brother claimed Falcon had climbed into the craft before it was released. So even as some CNN anchors questioned whether a child was actually inside, all the cable news channels covered the event until the balloon touched down.
MSNBC, at least, had a delay sent up on its signal so they could cut away if it looked like Falcon was in mortal danger. Other outlets cut away when the balloon actually touched down.
And while some channels couldn't help speculating on the parenting skills of a family that allows the kids to curse openly, takes them on storm-chasing rides near tornadoes and has appeared on ABC's Wife Swap twice --I'm talking about you, CNN -- the events of Thursday played out pretty much the only way the could have.
What viewers saw was modern-day media's unfortunate habit of publishing news as they gather it -- a watch-the-sausage-get-made kind of process that almost guarantees excess.
"Overall, I thought the coverage was interesting and mostly good," said Al Tompkins, a former TV news director and head of broadcast journalism instruction at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Pete Times. "The facts as we knew them were compelling, they told us what they knew when they knew it ... even after the boy was found, I still wanted to see it."
And now that the boy has told CNN "We did it for the show," it's now time for media to spend the next two weeks trying to figure if we all got hoodwinked, or just pulled into the drama surrounding one of the most dysfunctional families on television. Sigh.
See the moment below: