Media lessons learned from balloon boy: The danger of courting those who want fame too badly
As police in Colorado now say the story of a 6-year-old who was at first though to have floated away in a helium balloon was an elaborate hoax, there may be no one more abused by this whole affair -- other than the children of fame-seeking nutcases Richard and Mayumi Heene, of course -- than the news media.
First, if the Larimer County Sheriff's Office is to be believed, the Heenes untethered a huge balloon duct-taped together to resemble a flying saucer, calling TV news outlets at the same time they notified police that their youngest son, Falcon, might be aboard the craft.
As cable TV did its thing, kicking into continuous coverage mode until the balloon touched down, the Heenes kept young Falcon under wraps -- possibly with the complicity of a media outlet that agreed to pay the family money for their story, according to police.
When the intense glare of the national media fixated on the Heenes, Falcon cracked, first telling CNN he "did it for the show," then throwing up twice on morning TV news shows when asked whether the incident was a hoax.
Then police say they told a fib to the news media, stating on Friday they believed the event absolutely was not a hoax, trying to gain the Heenes' confidence so they could amass enough evidence to prove the opposite. Finally, another media outlet, Gawker.com, paid a Denver man who developed a reality TV proposal with Richard Heene that included creating a UFO-shaped balloon and releasing it to get publicity.
There are lots of candidates for who gets the most egg on their face here -- I'm wondering if the police were head-faking the Heenes or just forced to investigate an incident that made them look gullible as more evidence piled up that the family had staged it all.
But the news media may look worst -- first, for getting duped by the incident and later for all the excesses that followed -- especially if a well-known outlet knew about the event before it happened or before police pronounced it a hoax.
(Even though ratings may have jumped during coverage, the value of big ratings during a news emergency is convincing viewers to keep watching you in the future. Saturation coverage of a bogus story may not help much in that regard.)
At this point, hopefully the Heenes have taught us media types a few hard-won lessons -- making it easier for a producer or reporter to suggest backing off a story that smells funny, even if competitors are on it full tilt.
Like getting inoculated by a virus, perhaps the only way to force our ravenous 24/7 news media culture to pause before a made-for-live-TV emergency like this, was to get duped badly enough that the embarrassment lingers a while.
This probably won't happen, but I'm hoping this incident inspires news outlets to be better gatekeepers, asking tough questions about putting young children on camera when the parents won't. When a kid vomits on camera twice, something's wrong with the producer filming everything -- as well as the parents.
The Heenes' greatest legacy may be in showing journalists just how far some people are willing to go for a time in the white-hot floodlights of national fame.
As the saying goes, fool me twice, shame on me. Now it's up to the news media to get wise, and temper our thirst for the next hot story just enough so we won't get fooled again.