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What if the Balloon Boy spectacle wasn't a hoax? [Updated]

October 16, 2009 | 12:54 pm
Balloon boy

For a television viewer, the most frightening moment of the whole “balloon boy” story came not when authorities discovered that Falcon Heene wasn’t in the weather balloon they had been chasing all over Colorado, the implication being that he had perhaps fallen out. The most frightening moment was watching “Today’s” Meredith Vieira interrogate the Heene family, all of whom looked as if they had been dragged from their beds pre-dawn, even as Falcon writhed heavy-lidded at his father’s side and then vomited into a Tupperware container held by his mother.

Vieira didn’t miss a beat, hanging on to her stern school marm tone — “Was this all a hoax?” she wanted to know — until Richard Heene, his voice shaking, said he was getting a little ticked off by all the accusations that he and his wife had staged the hours-long manhunt for publicity.

“I’m not a salesman,” he said. “I don’t have anything to sell.”

Vieira stepped back a pace or two, offering Heene a moment to allow his family to collect their emotions before they returned to talk about what the day had been like for them.

Vieira’s accusatory tone stemmed from the fact that Falcon, while being interviewed Thursday night by Wolf Blitzer, filling in for Larry King on "Larry King Live," had said he had been hiding because “we were doing it for a show.” And Richard’s indignation is tainted by his family’s participation in the reality show “Wife Swap,” which led many to suspect the family had developed an unhealthy addiction to publicity.

If the Heenes had been all over the news Thursday, begging for help and inviting sympathy, one might wonder if this weren’t some new media-derived strain of Munchausen by proxy. But that’s not what the nation saw. The nation saw, on every cable news network, endless replays of the latter stages of the balloon flight, caught by helicopter cameras, its landing and the discovery that the boy was nowhere inside.

Over and over, footage was replayed (as if somehow it would alter in repetition), interspersed with commentary from various balloon experts. At one point, CNN had the magic map involved, with volume-versus-mass equations going on. It was so absurd that at times Blitzer seemed almost unable to carry on; several times he hesitantly wondered if perhaps the boy wasn’t just hiding somewhere.

Blitzer, it seems, has actually met a 6-year-old boy, although he too joined the throng wondering if Falcon’s statement on “Larry King” was proof that the Heene family had staged the whole thing.
But even if it were a hoax, the crime was against all those involved in the search, not against the media that chose to follow the story so relentlessly even after it was clear there would be no money shot of Falcon emerging, unharmed, from the balloon. (Actually, that CNN and MSNBC aired real-time footage of the landing of a balloon, which might well contain the injured or dead boy, raises a few publicity-related questions as well.)

After that didn’t happen, the various anchors spent an hour speculating about an attached box that might have fallen with him in it. All of which they softened with occasional asides that they hoped the boy would be found safe somewhere.

When he was, the family was almost immediately accused of a hoax. Because of a comment made by a 6-year-old boy who was looking at Wolf Blitzer. Live.

Authorities are currently investigating whether the Heene family was involved in a hoax. If they were, that is certainly a story. But until that’s proved, maybe the media should back off just a little and not punish a family that may well have just survived the worst day of their lives. 

[Updated at 2:04 p.m.: We originally wrote that Larry King had interviewed Falcon on "Larry King Live." He was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on the program. We've changed the post to reflect that.]

— Mary McNamara

Photo: Six-year-old Falcon Heene is shown with his father, Richard, outside the family's home in Fort Collins, Colo. Credit: David Zalubowski / Associated Press

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