Balloon boy: Nail-biting drama or a Disneyesque hoax?

When news first broke on Friday that a six-year-old boy from Colorado had been swept away in a flyaway balloon, it captured the world’s attention in a way not seen since the media last found a character it could summarise in a snappy sobriquet (see Canoe Man, Octomom).

Balloon Boy was born. Sensing an opportunity to unite the country in a collective moment, American TV networks streamed live coverage of the nail-biting search for Falcon Heene. Before long, the New York Times had started a minute-by-minute blog, and Americans were glued to their televisions.
Was a small boy really inside that homemade helium balloon, whizzing past clouds at a frightening rate? They stayed tuned to find out.

When, at around 6pm on Friday night local time, the boy was “discovered” alive and well and hiding in the attic (where he apparently scarpered after being told off by his dad earlier in the day), there wasn’t much time for elation before the tide turned and the great American public directed suspicion and then anger at the Heene family.

It was a live interview with CNN which set tongues wagging that this heartwarming story wasn’t quite what it seemed. The anchor asked Falcon whether he was aware of the hoo-ha going on outside as he hid. There was a pause as the boy faltered and said he had heard them shouting. Why didn’t you come out, then? asked his father, Richard. “Umm,” said Falcon, “you guys said we did this for the show”.

The show? What show? Journalists did some googling and it emerged Falcon’s parents had appeared on the US version of Wife Swap—twice. Could Falcon’s adventure have really been little more than an attempt by his fame-hungry mum and dad to get on television for a third time?

Richard Heene said later he was “appalled” by intimations the family did this all for publicity but it was too late. The backlash was in full flow. Soon an online poll was asking internet users to vote whether it was all a publicity stunt, a petition had been set up demanding the parents be charged, and T-shirts bearing the legend “Go Falcon, Go!” were on sale. The most cynical minds pointed out similarities between the story and the plot of Disney’s latest animation, Up, in which a 78-year-old man ties balloons to his house and flies away, with an eight-year-old stowaway. -

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