When a UFO shaped helium balloon took off from Colorado, possibly harboring a 6-year-old boy, the broadcast and cable news organizations were transfixed. But when it turned out to be a possible "publicity stunt" the networks continued to give it enormous amounts of coverage.
That's exactly the opposite of the way the networks covered made-up quotes attributed to conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh that had portrayed him as racist.
ABC's "Good Morning America," CBS's "The Early Show," and NBC's "Today" devoted 80 minutes and 55 seconds to the story of "balloon boy" Falcon Heene on Oct. 16, when it was clear the boy had not been in the balloon and even after the boy told CNN's Larry King that he was hiding because "we did this for the show."
But since the fictional Limbaugh quotes were exposed, the networks spent only 47 seconds discussing it. Only ABC addressed it at all - on "World News with Charles Gibson" Oct. 12 and re-airing David Muir's brief on "Good Morning America," the next day.
That included a comment from Limbaugh defending himself saying, "They have to go somewhere to find concocted quotes, which are now bordering on slander, libel, whatever it is."
Still, the bogus Limbaugh quotes were not a priority for the networks which were happy to spend 100 times more coverage on the possible balloon "hoax." While the broadcast networks never aired the phony Limbaugh quotes, they did indicate he had failed in his NFL bid because of racial comments.
Instead, "balloon boy" was the star of the day. CBS even interviewed a clinical psychologist about the 6-year-old on "The Early Show."
But Falcon's Oct. 15 statement during "Larry King Live," along with the Heene family's unusual background (stormchasing, appearing on "Wife Swap"), led many to question whether or not the entire incident was in fact a hoax or publicity stunt for a TV show.
"Today's" Meredith Vieira asked Falcon's father, Richard Heene, bluntly "was this a hoax or a publicity stunt?" Heene vehemently denied that possibility and admitted to being "ticked off" by all the interviewers asking it.
"Absolutely not and now I'm starting to get a little ticked off because I'm repetitively getting asked in the last couple of interviews. What have I got to gain out of this? I'm not selling anything. I'm not advertising anything," Heene said.
Robin Roberts posited a similar theory on "Good Morning America," saying, "Some are asking, did the family, known for their appearance on reality TV, did they take us all for a ride?" Even if it wasn't a stunt, it was still obvious the child had not been in the balloon, yet the networks covered it overwhelmingly.
The huge disparity of coverage between the two incidents revealed the priorities of the networks. On Oct. 13, Media Research Center President Brent Bozell demanded that news outlets which had run these quotes to prove that Limbaugh had in fact said them. Limbaugh unequivocally denied saying the racist quotes.MRC also released a Special Report on Oct. 14 about the media's attempted character assassination of Limbaugh, which included the use of unproven quotes generated by left-wing bloggers and authors.