The Next 20

The Ballad of Balloon Boy

Seven years ago, an incredibly stupid mystery captivated CNN. Today, thanks to cable news, Balloon Boys are everywhere.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and screencapture of CNN.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and CNN.

At 2:42 p.m. on Oct. 15, 2009, CNN afternoon anchor Kyra Phillips interrupted a live broadcast of a town hall by President Obama to bring viewers a breaking story as alarming as it was irresistible. A large silver helium balloon had broken loose and was racing through the windy skies of Colorado—with a small boy trapped inside. By any journalistic criteria, a little boy trapped inside a runaway experimental balloon counts as a good story; by the reductive standards of cable news, which prize emotional simplicity and evocative imagery above all, the incident must have seemed like the greatest story of all time. Cable-news scientists in a hermetically sealed clean room could not have created a more perfect CNN segment. CNN vowed to stay with the story until Balloon Boy was brought safely home.

The homecoming would happen shortly, but the story itself was an epic, full of twists and turns. By the end of the day, we had learned that Balloon Boy had never been inside the balloon, that he had been home all along, hiding in an attic. By the end of the week, we had learned that his unscrupulous parents had probably staged the entire thing as a stunt to stoke interest in a possible reality show. Today, the Balloon Boy saga is remembered, if at all, as a weird artifact from a mildly simpler time, a moment when the media gatekeepers were briefly and harmlessly fooled by a particularly cunning specimen of indigenous American fame whore. We were tricked; we laughed it off; we learned nothing. It happens.

But that summation sells Balloon Boy short. The Balloon Boy story crystallizes the problem of cable news in one historically stupid moment. Balloon Boy happened because CNN and its competitors couldn’t help it from happening, because the production demands of a 24-hour news network left it vulnerable to the chicanery of an unscrupulous jerk. It deserves to be remembered as the moment when cable news emerged from its chrysalis and became the entity it was genetically destined to become: a fundamentally unjournalistic medium uniquely susceptible to the wheedlings of vain and manipulative grifters, condemned to follow shiny objects until the end of time. Sometimes those shiny objects are balloons. Sometimes they’re loudmouths with dumb opinions. And sometimes they’re presidential candidates.

The alleged boy in the silver balloon was 6-year-old Falcon Heene. His father, Richard Heene, an amateur scientist and storm chaser, kept a 20-foot-long experimental balloon—sorry, a “3-D low altitude vehicle”—tied up and inflated in the yard, as one does. Though his father had scolded him for playing in the contraption, Falcon nevertheless remained drawn to the balloon. This boy was a real Balloon Boy, you might say, and soon enough that was what we were all saying, because around noon on that fatefully dumb day, Falcon’s older brother told his father that the younger child had climbed into the balloon and it had come unmoored. When he heard the news, Heene made a curious choice for a distraught father: He called the local TV station.

No one seemed skeptical. A reporter’s job can be a joy when the news comes to him. The story spread from local to national news faster than a sprinting llama; CNN and the other cable news networks carried the yarn for a breathless hour, teasing every possible bit of data and pathos out of the errant aircraft. What kind of balloon was it: hot air or helium? (“I mean, you think of Mylar balloons with helium, you think of birthday parties,” said Phillips. “You don’t think of some massive balloon taking your 6-year-old airborne.”) How did the boy get inside the balloon? (“I do not know the details, I’m sorry,” said a spokesperson for the Larimer County Sheriff’s Department.) At 3 p.m., CNN’s Rick Sanchez joined Phillips and ratcheted up the drama. “I want to grab through that screen, reach through that screen and grab that thing and bring it down to earth,” he asserted. Minutes later, Phillips announced a terrible development: The sheriff’s office feared the boy might have already fallen out of the balloon. “Boy, I will tell you, Kyra, that’s heartbreaking news,” said Sanchez. “Hopefully, it’s wrong for some reason. Sometimes, in news, all we can do is hope that the information we get is wrong.”

Finally, about an hour after CNN picked up the story, the balloon landed near Colorado Springs. “If you, uh, if you are predisposed to do so, and you want to say a little prayer … you might wanna do so now, because this 6-year-old boy is about 100 feet from the ground,” said Sanchez. Rescue workers surrounded the craft—and discovered there was no Balloon Boy to be found in the Balloon Boy balloon.

What a twist! The interplay between Phillips and Sanchez at the moment of the reveal was priceless:

Sanchez: I’ll tell you, this is one of those stories that really will tell itself shortly here. The picture …

Phillips: Rick, I don’t know if anybody is in there.

Sanchez: … describe it for us.

Phillips: They would be going right in.

Sanchez: I’ll tell you, it’s, it’s, you can only hope he’s in there. But right now, I, I have not seen them go in, and, uh … I have not seen them go in and get the little boy out. It doesn’t even look like they’re making an effort to—I am confused.

Sanchez wasn’t the only one. Had Balloon Boy really fallen out? Had he ever been in there at all? The Colorado Air National Guard sent a Blackhawk helicopter to scour the countryside for any sign of the child. “Right now, a search is underway for a 6-year-old boy who may or may not have climbed into a homemade helium balloon,” announced Wolf Blitzer at the top of the 4 p.m. hour. Just over two hours later, we learned that Balloon Boy was hiding inside a box in the attic of the family garage. “I played with my toys and took a nap,” he told reporters. And 300 million Americans muttered the immortal words of Uncle Frank in Home Alone: “Look what ya did, ya little jerk!

But the true jerks in this situation, it turned out, were Balloon Boy’s parents. The New York Times described Richard Heene as a “fame-seeking backyard scientist,” which is the closest the Times will ever come to calling someone a jackass. Heene was a former stand-up comedian who co-hosted an online talk show called the Psyience Detectives; according to the YouTube clips I’ve found, the show’s editorial priorities centered on determining whether the world would end in 2012. (It did not.) The Heenes had previously appeared on the reality show Wife Swap, on which they switched places with a family of psychics from Florida.

On the night of the Balloon Boy incident, Wolf Blitzer hosted the Heenes for an interview. In it, Blitzer accidentally broke some actual news: Asked by his father why he had hidden in the garage attic and ignored searchers’ cries, Falcon replied, “Um … you guys said … that, um … we did this for the show.” (“Man … ” said his father. “No … ?” said his mother.) 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!

But what had Falcon meant by “the show”? Three days later, the county sheriff announced that the Heenes had likely launched the hoax as a bid to stoke interest in a potential reality television program—ostensibly a revamped version of the Psyience Detectives in which Heene and his family would go around solving psyientific mysteries. In a sworn affidavit, Mayumi Heene admitted that the Balloon Boy stunt was a hoax. Both of the Heene parents were charged with crimes: Richard with attempting to influence a public servant, and Mayumi with false reporting to authorities. Each served a short stint in jail.

“Why continue the wall-to-wall coverage of a story that had turned into a non-story—on a political show—during a week when health care, financial reform, and Afghanistan are all at the tipping point?” asked Arianna Huffington in a column on her namesake website. The answer to that question is not novel or interesting—everyone, Arianna Huffington included, knows it. A credulous media that is enslaved to the production demands of our modern 17-second news cycle will pass along any dumb story without giving it much thought.

But the network wasn’t wholly at fault, either. The balloon was in the air. The boy’s family said he was in it. 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.

The media, especially cable news, seems essentially passive; they’ve been trained to wait for news to come to them. This assumed passivity conceals the media’s own role in setting the news agenda, in elevating things from curiosities to actual news stories. After picking up the story toward the end of its 2 p.m. hour, CNN broadcast an entire workday’s worth of Balloon Boy; the only host that day who didn’t mention the Heenes was Lou Dobbs, who spent an hour on Lou Dobbs Tonight discussing much less mediagenic topics like Wall Street bonuses and health care reform. “Yes, great story,” said Blitzer after Falcon was found alive and it appeared the saga was over. “All right, there’s other news. Remember the health insurance debate?” And then Lou Dobbs went to the health insurance debate, and CNN apparently found it boring, because the instant Dobbs’ program ended the channel went directly back to Balloon Boy.

The media always has a choice of which stories to carry, how to frame those stories, and how much credence to give their main actors. In the early hours of the Balloon Boy story, Phillips and Sanchez took care to emphasize how little they knew about the situation, which was good. But they also proceeded to bring in guests who knew even less about it than they did. Within minutes of cutting to the story, Phillips was interviewing a balloon expert named Craig Kennedy, who had no idea what was happening and who couldn’t see any footage from wherever he was. “You’re asking for a great deal of speculation without me being able to see anything that’s going on,” Kennedy said, and that is exactly what CNN and its competitors want their guests to do, and it then becomes the hosts’ job to refrain from calling attention to their guests’ limitations. It works the same way with every afactual political commentator, every blustering politician, every in-the-dark aviation expert, every grinning ax-grinder who finds his way onto the air. And the more adept he is at confident speculation, the more airtime he receives.

Today, I use the term Balloon Boy as shorthand for a special species of jerk, a catchall term for unreliable narrators whose studied theatricality and sociopathic zeal for attention lets them successfully prey on our media’s unceasing demand for new news. Unlike an actual boy in an actual balloon, America’s Balloon Boys will never disappear into the clouds. Balloon Boys will always remain just off in the middle distance, hovering in the periphery of consciousness, waiting around for the right breeze to ride into the headlines. Balloon Boys are the future of jerks: people who will do anything to attract and maintain coverage, who recognize that, these days moreso than ever, the public and the media will keep watching you if you commit to doing and saying the dumbest possible things with the straightest possible faces.

The Heenes did not land their reality television show, but otherwise they got what they wanted. News organizations write retrospectives about the story. Journalists sometimes ask, “Where are they now?” and I bet you care about the answer. So what are the Heenes up to now? It will not surprise you to learn that they moved to Florida. It will also not surprise you to learn that Richard Heene now claims the hoax was not actually a hoax, which is exactly the sort of thing a hoaxster would say. It will definitely not surprise you to learn that they are big fans of Donald J. Trump, the ultimate Balloon Boy. The Heene boys are now in a heavy metal band called the Heene Boyz, and the front page of their website features a pro-Trump anthem with Falcon on lead vocals. “Say this for the Heenes … ” began a recent article in the Tampa Bay Times, “they are persistent.” Balloon Boys always are. The air is full of them now, and they’re never going away.