Hot Air Journalism

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009; 9:40 AM

You probably think I'm going to rip the cable news networks for subjecting the nation to that heart-stopping hot-air balloon chase across the Colorado skies, under the premise that a 6-year-old boy was aboard.

You're wrong.

The authorities, and the media, believed they had a credible report that the kid had climbed aboard this weird balloon rocket that his family had constructed. Rescue efforts were underway. It seemed to be a life-and-death drama as the balloon was buffeted by the winds. I was in two different offices during that hour, and in both places people were gathered around television sets, slack-jawed, transfixed. One woman teared up.

What an incredible relief to discover that the kid was hiding back in the house. There are lots of unanswered questions but, for once, the media didn't inflict this disaster on the public. We all watched it together. Of course, it turned into an evening talkathon even after we found out the boy had never been aboard.

In fact, it all seemed so ordinary. Falcon Heene had been climbing into the balloon's battery compartment, his father yelled at him, he hid in the rafters of the garage. Whatever happened to hiding under the covers?

Within hours, inevitably, the family was giving interviews; I caught them with Wolf Blitzer last night. This is, after all, the same gang that went on "Wife Swap." And I must say, the father is kinda weird. But I'm glad everyone's safe.

In retrospect, you could say the cable channels went wild covering the flight of an empty balloon. And technically, that is true. But cable doesn't have the ability to say, You know what, folks? We're not sure what's going on here, so we'll check it out and get back to you. I mean, there are times when you can do that. A runaway bride says she was accosted by assailants, you check it out first. But not a runaway balloon. Who among us wouldn't have switched channels if the one you were watching dropped the subject? The ratings, forgive me, must have soared.

"For a magical hour or so," says the Chicago Tribune's John Kass, "Americans huddled around their TV sets Thursday afternoon, worried about Balloon Boy and his floating silver portabello mushroom ship.

"It was actually a helium balloon built by Balloon Boy's father, a self-described storm chaser from Fort Collins, Colo., a fellow who must be something of a publicity hound because he paraded his family on the reality TV show "Wife Swap."

"And inside the ship, we were told, was a 6-year-old aptly named Falcon Heene, apparently riding far above the Earth, spinning past the clouds. Who could turn away, even with the vague possibility that the whole thing was staged?

"And with breathless TV anchors telling us the boy was inside, most of us feared it would all end badly."

I'm not sure it was possible to be anything other than breathless during this bizarre episode.

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