For a few horrifying hours yesterday, TV news and its audience thought they might be witnessing the death of a child in real time. Instead, it turned out we were literally distracted by a shiny object. The silvery experimental balloon hurtling through the air over Colorado did not, it turned out, hold six-year-old Falcon Heene; he had not fallen out of it; he had never been in it. And the media cycle being what it is, by nightfall Falcon and his family were on Larry King Live.
So what did happen? The real story is still murky, but there’s an interesting tidbit in the video above (h/t Mediaite). Asked by Wolf Blitzer why he didn’t come out of his garage hiding place when his family was looking for him, Falcon, addressing his father, says, “You guys said that we did it for the show.”
Now, it’s hard to know entirely what to take from the comment, which Blitzer inexplicably didn’t follow up on (and which seemed to leave father Richard Heene awkwardly flustered). There’s no obvious “show” the family’s involved in that Falcon could have been referring to, though Richard, a storm-chaser and science enthusiast, has hosted a series of documentary videos under the title “Psyience Detectives,” and the family participated in an episode of ABC’s Wife Swap. It’s a cryptic remark, which might have referred to anything, and later on Larry King, Richard flatly denied that the incident was any kind of publicity stunt.
Still, I hate to be one of those people citing the appearance in a reality show as some kind of scarlet letter that automatically makes a person suspect—but with the details of the incident still weirdly fuzzy, the possibility of a hoax hanging out there, a family that’s not exactly publicity-shy and now this mouths-of-babes reference to “doing it for the show,” this only raises more questions about what was really going on. (Falcon may be in more hot water with his folks now for his LKL comment than for anything that he did or didn’t do with the family flying vessel.)
Yesterday’s scary aerial chase was the sort of event that cable news was born to carry, and it unsurprisingly led to the kind of excesses and confusion that accompany this kind of breaking story. Cable networks brought out a flotilla of “balloon experts” to guess at whether this balloon could have lifted a child. The story went through a roller-coaster emotional cycle. First we thought we might be helplessly witnessing the terrifying death of a child on live TV (networks went on a tape delay or cut away from the balloon’s landing to avoid live-airing anything horrific). When the balloon softly landed, then no child was found inside, there was a mixture of relief and further dread, which grew stronger when it was reported that the balloon had some type of basket attachment, which was not there when it landed.
Contradictions reigned: for a long time yesterday afternoon, CNN reported that officials were “confident” that Falcon had never gotten in the balloon, while MSNBC maintained just as firmly that authorities were certain he had gotten in it. For whatever reason CNN proved to be right, but nonetheless both networks ran chyrons on their coverage saying that a boy was in the balloon, which turned out to be false.
As with a lot of such stories—the recent false gunfire-on-the-Potomac story, for instance—the networks made the mistake of reporting something they believed might be true as if it were confirmed fact, instead of sticking to what they knew for a certainty. (On the other hand, Fox News, for at least part of the afternoon, chyroned its coverage saying that a boy was “believed” to be in the balloon.)
In the end, as Shepard Smith said, anchoring Fox’s coverage, “If nothing else, we’ve had a fascinating hour and a half with no commercials, watching a beautiful day in Colorado.” Fortunately, it was nothing more than that. (The entire nation collectively had that universal parent’s experience: Thank God you’re safe! I’m going to kill you!)
The question now turns to: what was the family’s responsibility? Was there some plot at work here, or was this just the equivalent of Bart Simpson’s Boy Down the Well prank gone wrong? (And how fast can South Park generate an episode based on this—it was in Colorado!)
Finally, what did Falcon mean when he said, “We did it for the show”? Whatever he meant, he certainly gave us one.
[Update: This morning, by the way, the Heenes brought a visibly sick Falcon out for interviews with both Today and Good Morning America, on the latter of which Falcon threw up on camera as Dad continued answering questions. This story just gets more and more heartwarming.]