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Balloon Boy Punctures Media Ethics

The saga of 6-year-old Falcon Heene - who we can only hope will someday shake the moniker “balloon boy” - could present a teachable moment for the ratings-obsessed media.

Where do you draw the line when there is an indication that the parents of an interview subject may not be acting with their children’s’ best interests at heart?

In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Oct. 15, Falcon, who was thought to be swept away in a saucer-shaped balloon, said, “We did this for a show.” In that moment, he seemingly revealed what many suspected: that the balloon flight was a hoax to drum up publicity for a reality show and that his parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, may have coached their children to lie.

But all three morning shows - NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS’ Early Show - still interviewed the family and posed questions to the parents as well as Falcon. The boy vomited during interviews with NBC’s Meredith Vieira and ABC’s Diane Sawyer.

“I don’t know that there is a hard-and-fast rule for that kind of situation,” said Today executive producer Jim Bell. “Once we realized the boy was ill, we took time out to let him regroup. Then we came back and just talked to the father.”

CNN and ABC News declined comment. A CBS News executive could not be reached before deadline.

The Heenes may face charges for allegedly perpetrating a stunt that shut down Denver International Airport, involved multiple National Guard helicopters and dozens of rescue personnel, and apparently ruined a farmer’s wheat field. Whatever charges Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden eventually brings against the Heenes - he has said the indictment would include the charge of endangering the welfare of a child - the court of public opinion has already judged them. And a litany of stories about the scourge of reality television and its detrimental effect on young children has poured forth. 

The national interest in this story has certainly been fueled by the spectacle of a father pressing his children into service in an ongoing quest for television stardom. It’s a different version of an old story: the stage parent living vicariously through their child.

“I don’t know that that [behavior] is anything new, unfortunately,” adds Bell. “I think it’s probably been around a lot longer than the dawn of reality TV. Reality TV may have just provided another window into some of that unfortunate behavior.”