- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The “balloon boy” was a dim-bulb hoax that ultimately generated an illuminating media moment. Indeed, major news organizations and the American public dutifully followed the glittery tale like fascinated children, and the story devolved from high drama to mere sideshow antics in 48 hours.

“New iPhone App Detects Balloon Hoaxes,” noted comedian and columnist Andy Borowitz in his own parody headline on Monday.

Law enforcement was placed in a complicated position, however.

Larimer County, Colo., Sheriff Jim Alderden played the role of good cop, hall monitor, sergeant-at-arms and media analyst as the story took flight. Charged with keeping the global press at bay, Sheriff Alderden employed a method long used by authorities when national security or public safety is on the public radar.

He told a little fib to journalists.

The loony situation was treated with considerable gravity. Sheriff Alderden initially claimed he believed the Heene family’s claims of innocence in the balloon matter. Like a deft public affairs man who must determine whether the press has a “need to know” sensitive information, he bided his time and strategically protected his case against the Heenes, who could face felony charges.

“I think we bumped against the line of misleading the media. For that, I apologize,” the sheriff said. “We did this to make [family members] believe we were still on their side. We established trust.”

Sheriff Alderden also implied that several “media outlets” were privy to the Heene’s scheme to promote a “mad scientist” reality TV show by launching the silver balloon and implying that their young son was aboard, then standing by as rescue, chaos and buzz ensued.

Was the plainspoken sheriff justified in his omission of facts?

“Sadly, I’m sure the sheriff knew the story was going to be enormous, and he wanted to have all his facts - and instincts - in line before he went public. In that case, he showed far more caution than the so-called ‘news’ people,” said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center.

“It’s disturbing that cable news networks get hoaxed. But they also exploited their own mistakes for another marathon of balloon-boy-aftermath programming. The networks have exposed themselves, like the proverbial suckers born every minute,” Mr. Graham said. “They can be manipulated. Then they seem almost grateful to their manipulators for giving them an ongoing audience-grabber, even as their own reputations float away.”

Joey Skaggs, a veteran “hoax artist” and professional prankster who has fooled the news media repeatedly with fascinating and outlandish scenarios for two decades, said the fandango between press and police has long been a fixture in the cultural landscape.

“There’s been a distinct relationship between the news media and authorities since the beginning. And that relationship goes both ways. Sometimes police work with you, sometimes not,” Mr. Skaggs said, citing his experiences with police when he posed as a “scalp transplant doctor,” among other things.

“Balloon boy was not so much a hoax as a scam - self-aggrandizing parents exploiting their children, costing taxpayer money, then facing consequences. In the end, we’ve got to examine the intent of the parents, the media and the police,” Mr. Skaggs said. “I don’t know if it’s right or wrong here for authorities to withhold information. But it is not unusual, and it’s been happening for quite some time.”

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