Intro – how a 6-year-old bested TV news

My friend and former colleague Jim has always seemed to fancy himself a Hunter S. Thompson disciple. One notable episode took place the week of Oct. 15, 2009, when he convinced my girlfriend and a fellow writer at our student newspaper, CSU’s Rocky Mountain Collegian, to abscond with him on an impromptu trip to Las Vegas vaguely fashioned upon the plot of Thompson’s epic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” He showed up at our door with a suitcase full of hard drugs and exclaimed, “Let’s go to Vegas, man!” Being unimaginative, I declined. But our coworker, on the outs from the student paper after an office controversy, and my girlfriend, recently graduated, heartily agreed. Jim and Dave’d skip classes and Hailey would telecommute from the road.

They did the drugs but fell far short of the Thompsonian debauch when, at Hailey’s suggestion to visit a famous strip club (Dave and Jim were not yet of age and found bouncers intimidating), the men declined for fear of the law, their personal wellbeing and their professional futures. Jim, it appeared, did not live up to HST. He drove back high on cocaine but sans the tortured narrative about the search for The American Dream. Indeed, they had not even tried to look.

During this odyssey, a local Fort Collins family had embarked on an adventure of its own. Richard Heene, a former storm chaser and reality TV star, lost control of a large experimental helium balloon, which floated into the sky and he informed a local TV news station that his 6-year-old boy Falcon was trapped in a capsule attached to the balloon.

It was a perfect TV package, one that had stunning visuals, would “tell itself,” wrench hearts and be cheaply produced.

Over the final hour of the balloon’s flight, CNN feeds appeared on the screens of newsrooms across the country and especially in Colorado showing the silver object drifting on plains winds across Eastern Colorado. Those newsrooms included that of the Collegian, and our coverage, insinuated across campus with bated breath, reflected it. The TV footage was rapt and exhaustive for hours, even after the balloon landed without its alleged cargo near Denver International Airport, as law enforcement officers and news commentators speculated that the boy had fallen from the balloon during the flight. An object had been captured by news cameras tumbling from the balloon before it came to the ground.

That afternoon, it became clear that Falcon had been hiding in his attic – had never climbed into the balloon. The country rallied around the Heene family in solidarity for what seemed the overwhelming comfort of discovering their son safe at home. Until, that is, the family gathered that evening with CNN’s bearded sage Wolf Blitzer and the boy spilled the beans. Asked during the conversation by his father whether he had been hiding from people looking for him intentionally to cause a stir, Falcon replied: “Um … you guys said … that, um … we did this for the show.”

A bewildered, unquestioning and sympathetic Blitzer covered a lot of ground before he thought to dig any deeper.  As Justin Peters in Slate, in an excellent commentary this election season on how the 24-hour news cycle is failing America, noted:

It took about 30 minutes for Blitzer, God bless him, to follow up on that startling admission and ask Heene what his son had meant. Heene replied by repeatedly saying that he was “appalled” that Blitzer would ask that question. (“I was just grateful that he is just fine,” Blitzer crumbled. “You have a beautiful family there.”) This is what world-class liars do: They go big with their lies, and then bluster loudly when they’re called out on them – even when the person calling them out is barely even calling them out!

As Falcon’s mother, Mayumi, later admitted to investigators, the incident was an elaborate con, and in the ensuing court case prosecutors surmised it as a craven attempt to revive the family’s reality TV career. It’s difficult to know who looked stupider, CNN and other media outlets, which received round criticism for having been duped by a B-rated science quack, or the Heene parents, who both did small time in jail and were forced to pay restitution for misleading public servants.

It was meant as a punishment when Jim returned from Vegas on the downslope of his Vegas bender and our editor, furious that he left without informing anyone and abdicated his duties, assigned him to cover the Balloon Boy fallout. He hemmed and hawed and resigned himself to writing about something that we all, as students of media and public discourse, knew was a farce. Other things were happening, on campus and off. Nationally, for example, a revolution in health care was being considered by the legislature. But that was boring.

One might blame it all on CNN and other sycophantic corporate news agencies that, faced with the pressures of balancing concerns like ratings and the substantial overhead of newsgathering with the fundamental mission of serving the public trust, sometimes traffic in vapidity to fill the gaping news hole. Without CNN, after all, would Balloon Boy have simply been a non-story? But there’s a more fundamental thing to address in this landscape: the very existence of a 24-hour news cycle itself. Peters wrote:

The boy’s family said he was in [the balloon]. The boy was nowhere to be found at home. Who can blame CNN for going with it? It’s hard to report accurately on a story when the prime mover of that story is blatantly lying to you. It’s especially hard to report accurately when you carry the news as it happens, when you outsource the contextualization of the images you broadcast.

Material visualized in the following pages of this humble website will investigate the problem of the 24-hour news hole. Furthermore, it will propose that cable news agencies design a more robust and intrepid model based in enterprise and investigative reporting while maintaining the infrastructure and capability to mobilize that allows appropriate coverage of legitimate breaking news stories, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, emergent people’s movements like the Arab Spring, the election of Donald Trump. And it will examine instances in which TV stations, including CNN, have done great investigative work and affected positive change to the credit of such hearty structures, illustrating their infrastructural capabilities.