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The Balloon Boy and Rush

Tom PattonThere were two stories in the national media this week that didn’t leave the 4th estate looking their best.

We all held our breath on Thursday as a homemade balloon raced across Colorado, possibly with a 6-year-old boy aboard. Honestly, we didn’t have any reason to disbelieve it. The balloon was there for all to see on national television, the boy’s brother said he’d seen Falcon Heene get aboard before the tether was released, we told the story as it was presented to us. As the editor for Aero-News.net, I bit on it as well. It certainly seemed like a legitimate aviation story. I had occasion to exchange e-mail with someone from the Experimental Aircraft Association on another issue that day, and he said because the word “experimental” had been used in an early story about the incident he’s been inundated with calls. Everybody was on the edge of their chairs about the boy in the balloon.

And then it unraveled. The balloon came down with no boy aboard. While there was some thought that he might have fallen out as the balloon flew as much as 6,000-7,000 feet over Colorado, it turned out that he had never been on board the balloon. He was hiding in the attic of his parent’s garage, in a box.

Later, being interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN, dad Richard Heene was visibly shaken when Falcon said “we did it for a show.” That was all most of us needed to know. Heene and his family had been on the show “Wife Swap”, and TV Guide reports that Heene had pitched a show about their family to producers at TLC, which they had declined. Out of the mouths of babes, I suppose. Now, the Larimer County Sheriff says he’s likely to file misdemeanor charges against the Heenes.

Still, the story had everything. There was drama, a child potentially in danger who needed to be rescued … and no one had any idea how that might happen, and great pictures for television. It’s easy to see why there were hundreds of stories written and aired about “the balloon boy,” but it’s now pretty unlikely that the Heenes will be getting that second reality show.

But the other media story that should have every legitimate journalist shaking their heads dealt with Rush Limbaugh and his brush with NFL ownership. Think what you will about Rush, and he has his loyal Dittoheads as well as his vocal detractor, there were some mainstream media outlets attributing racist quotes to Rush that he simply didn’t say. Among the sources they gave were Wikipedia, and one of the many anti-Rush books that have been published … which also apparently used “quotes” that could not actually be attributed to Rush.

Now, whether or not Rush should be an NFL owner is a debate for another day. He certainly has the money. That he was approached by an investment group and asked to participate, then dumped very publicly for things he didn’t say is very unfortunate. There are many recognizable people in the NFL who have had their brushes with the law, so why Limbaugh was suddenly unacceptable is a head-scratcher. But the bottom line is that unsubstantiated quotes were repeated as fact by people who should have known better. That is unconscionable. It’s really as basic as journalism 101.

There used to be an old joke, the setup for which I’ve long since forgotten, but for which the punchline was “I read it in the paper, so it has to be true.” This week, there were two stories in which that certainly turned out not to be the case. Whether the Heenes purposely duped the media, causing a massive effort on the part of the National Guard, the FAA, and various local authorities will be for the courts to decide. It would have been difficult to vet that story more critically. The balloon was clearly flying, the boy was missing, and there was an eyewitness account that he had been seen getting inside.

But for the other, it almost seems like a vendetta. An opportunity to take someone who is very successful down a peg or two. And if what is said about him is not quite accurate, well, the ends justify the means. That could have been stopped with the most basic, small bit of research, which apparently was a bit too much trouble. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen again.

1 Responses »

  1. The balloon boy's situation can easily be dismissed by the tyranny of the moment: something bad happening NOW, it must be covered, so we jump in and worry about the fallout later. This type of story comes with the territory, and while the media WAS duped, we all were duped. it comes with the territory.

    However, the Rush story is a case not only of journalistic laziness, but also of journalistic malfeasance... I believe that most in the mainstream media would love to see Rush publicly humiliated, and their egos would hope that some how, some way, they could take part in that comeuppance... Quite the resume enhancer, eh?

    This Rush story was just too juicy TO vet: let's all hammer Limbaugh. Now that it has been shown that the story was based on lies, I don't expect anyone in the mainstream media to ever issues an apology to Rush. They'll simply shrug their shoulders, walk away, and mutter, "we'll get the bastard NEXT time...."