Up, Up and Away: How TV News Blew It

Students in journalism school are taught the maxim: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

In the 24/7 cable and Internet world of 2009, such a saying might seem old-fashioned, even Lou Grant-esque.

But more intense fact checking is desperately needed in this post-Survivor world where "reality" is a form of cheap entertainment, and pithy news bursts of 140 characters on Twitter enjoy enormous popularity.

We need fact checking of the kind done by line editors because the news media will otherwise continue to be downright gullible.

Will the cable networks air anything in the rush for ratings?

The story that gripped the nation last week had the same fanciful theme of the Hollywood family movie Up but was not nearly as sweet. Six-year-old Falcon Heene of Fort Collins, Colo., allegedly had floated away in a helium balloon.

Yet had he? Not enough news people even questioned whether such a thing was plausible in real life or whether his parents were credible.

So what if it wasn't true? It made great TV.

"It's an utterly unique story," Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC's Today, told the Los Angeles Times. "It had elements of a child in peril; there was a live picture of it; there was mystery to it; there were details that continued to develop throughout the course of the day about the family."

But this was supposed to be non-fiction. At what point did it matter to Bell that the story might have been too perfect--a whopper likely concocted to bolster a "reality TV" couple's acting careers, as authorities now say. After all, husband and wife had just appeared on ABC's Wife Swap http://abc.go.com/shows/wife-swap, not the most reputable of programs. Such background checking was instantly available and should have given those in charge reason to doubt--and pause.

Bart Feder, an executive vice president at CNN, argued that the story was legitimate news because of the fear that Falcon might be on board the balloon as it flew 50 miles across the sky. "I've been doing this for 30 years," he said. "I've seen most things. But I hadn't seen this before."

But why didn't Feder show skepticism? Was that because of the unbelievable ratings the story could bring and was bringing as it unfolded? The news media's job is supposed to inform the public, not merely agitate and inflame them.

You might counter that law enforcement authorities were believers too. But the Larimer County Sheriff's Office was certainly not helped by this media frenzy. The real story went way above broadcasters' heads because of their penchant for striking images and speed. Deliberation is boring.

Sheriff Jim Alderden said his "aha moment" came when the family was interviewed on CNN late the night of the incident. When his dad asked Falcon why he didn't come out to answer his parents' calls, the boy said famously: "You guys said that we did this for the show."

The parents' coaching must not have worked. Richard and Mayumi Heene may face felony charges of conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and attempting to influence a public official, according to the Sheriff's Office.

While not criminal, the media showed reckless behavior in reporting the story, both because the false information was spread widely and vigorously unchecked and because of the media's lack of concern for the children involved.

Consider the follow-up interviews Friday morning of poor little exhausted Falcon puking his guts out twice before a national audience on the morning shows of Meredith Viera and Diane Sawyer. Colorado is two hours behind New York, so the kid must have been up before dawn after a harrowing day.

Viera, a mother of three - including two boys -should have known better. Instead, the interviews were conducted with the presumption that the family had acted reasonably and all was right with the world.

It is understandable that it took law enforcement the "aha moment" of watching Falcon on Larry King live. Viera, in particular, looked like she hadn't even been paying attention when the boy upchucked.

The media is supposed to be a check on government. They are supposed to be skeptical. They are not supposed to believe the most outlandish stories they hear without any investigation.

While reality shows set up a premise and encourage the viewing audience to play along, news is supposed to be above that. Right?

Reporters do not stage events for the shock value. They are not really storm chasers, except to the extent that they warn and inform people during natural disasters.

Now we are hearing from exploited child actors such as Danny Bonaduce, who played Danny on The Partridge Family and is now host of I Know My Kid's a Star, and Paul Petersen, who played Jeff on The Donna Reed Show and is now a child advocate. Petersen runs the organization A Minor Consideration in Gardena, Calif.

And yes, we may be able to place most of the blame for this event on the adult parents of the children, but it also must be placed on the media. The press--TV broadcasters in particular--should conduct its own postmortem on this story.

Why? The media have failed miserably by not vetting what they put on the air and not treating the children as potential victims.

We were all hoodwinked by a serious prank last week, it's true, but those outlets who carried the story live from noon to 2 p.m. - much longer than any Howard Stern stunt -need to review their methods of verification because the public must know that what they see on television purporting to be news actually is.