Balloon Boy born of reality TV

by Jim Longworth

For two hours last Thursday, the nationwas spellbound by the sight (and flight) ofa homemade helium balloon drifting out ofcontrol. We were told that a six-year-old boy,Falcon Heene, had stowed away alone in theballoon’s tiny compartment and was headedfor certain death should his dad Richard’smylar contraption descend too suddenly fromthousands of feet in the air.CNN ran wall to wall, split-screen coverage,featuring telephone interviews withvarious experts. One of them, a noted balloonist, testifiedthat the vessel was listing in such a way as to suggest that thecompartment was devoid of a significant “payload.” Translation?Young Falcon was not inside. But that revelation onlyheightened the suspense.The boy’s brother had said that he saw Falcon board the balloon,and later a deputy sheriff reported that he saw somethingfall from the compartment in flight. Thus, our fear of a potentiallyfatal crash landing was replaced with a fear that Falconhad fallen out of the balloon, and was already dead.Joining CNN in the chase was a huge contingent of lawenforcement, military and governmental entities, includingpolice, firefighters, paramedics, sheriff’s deputies, the FAA,the Army and the Air Force. Moreover, Denver InternationalAirport, which stood in the balloon’s flight path, was temporarilyshut down, causing delays. It was the most unique (andperhaps the most expensive) one-day manhunt in history. Sorare, in fact, that none of the aforementioned participants wereprepared with a plan for rescue or extraction. Who would be?Finally the saucer-shaped balloon landed softly about 50miles from its launch site. Sure enough, Falcon was not insidethe cabin underneath. Larimer County Sheriff’s deputies hadalready searched the Heene house and grounds for Falcon,leaving the other pursuers to look for a body on the ground thatmight have fallen from the sky. But as it turned out, the onlyfalling Falcon did was asleep, or so we were told.It seems that after allegedly untethering his father’s balloon,the boy, believing he would be punished, hid away in the atticof his garage and then nodded off, unaware of the franticsearch being conducted for him. When he finally came out ofhiding, the world felt a collective sigh of relief. But the publiceuphoria soon abated, turned to suspicion and anger followinga television interview with the reunited family.Mr. and Mrs. Heene, Falcon and his two brothers all appearedlive on CNN and were questioned by Wolf Blitzer.Asked why he didn’t come out of hiding when he heard everyonecalling for him, Falcon replied, “You guys [his parents]said we did this for the show.” Oops!Then a home video surfaced which showed Richard, notFalcon, launching the balloon. Oops again.And then we learned that the Heene’s had participated in andtwice won ABC’s “Wife Swap” program, and were in negotiationswith RDF Media to develop a reality show of their own.That’s three oops and you’re out!The blogging world went nuts with speculation that the elderHeene had staged the entire hoax, and had instructed Falconto stay hidden so as to heighten the drama.

Richard denied any suchscheme, but it didn’t matter. At the very least, his lack of parentingskills (not knowing where his child was and giving his sons access to adangerous aircraft) and his quirky lifestyle (which included stormchasing with the boys, and meetings with space aliens) made himresponsible for a costly manhunt. For that, Richard Heene should makefull financial restitution to all parties involved in the search.

Andthough Falcon was never in any danger from this particular balloonincident, he and his brothers are still at risk — not just from theiraccess to helium balloons, but from parents who take them along whendriving into storms. And from parents who have encouraged them to bereckless, precocious, deceptive and to act out for the cameras. That’swhy in addition to making restitution, Richard and his wife should beinvestigated for child endangerment. And if a hoax can be proven, Heeneshould do a stretch in prison.

Inthe meantime, Congress has a golden opportunity to do something they’venever attempted before. After decades of trying to pass laws andregulations to protect children from watching television, they shouldnow enact legislation to protect children from appearing on television.Specifically, the new law should prohibit any child under the age of 18from appearing on an unscripted, entertainment reality show. Such a lawwill give all of the “Kate Plus 8” type kids of the world a fightingchance to grow up normal instead of acting out in a dysfunctionalenvironment for millions of people to watch, which can be harmful tothemselves and to others.

Thenew law could be named for young Heene, and would send a message thatsuch behavior by children (and their parents) brings with it seriousconsequences which far outweigh any possible rewards. So, here’s hopingthat the Federal Balloon Boy Act will get off the ground soon

JimLongworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m.on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cablechannel 15)