'Balloon Boy,' Meghan McCain dominate Twitter while media gorge on the drama

It was as if the news media had enough and just couldn't take it anymore. After weeks of grinding coverage of the health care debate, bad news from Afghanistan and the bizarre antics of various political leaders, much of the mainstream news media seemed to come unhinged on Thursday afternoon in a Twitter-fueled explosion over two stories.

The first was the saga of Balloon Boy, little Falcon Heene, who was thought to have taken off from his Colorado home in a helium balloon, only to be found safe hours later. The second was the uproar over a photo posted on Twitter by Meghan McCain (pictured), former Republican presidential candidate John McCain's daughter, in which the blond 24-year-old is seen wearing a revealing tank-top.
CNN and other cable news networks devoted significant coverage to the drama of the lost six-year-old, with chopper-borne news cameras tracking the balloon's every move. Hours later, the boy was found safe, hiding in his attic. Subsequently, it was revealed that little Falcon's father had appeared on the reality-TV show "Wife Swap" and was known for his wacky scientific experiments and "storm-chasing," which would presumably explain why he had a helium balloon in his back yard.

During the 9 p.m. hour, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, sitting in for Larry King, interviewed the Heene family -- including little Falcon -- about the experience. Wolf pressed the family over whether the incident was all a trumped-up publicity stunt. At one point, little Falcon can be heard allegedly saying to his father, "you said we were doing this for a show."

At a time when the U.S. is facing serious crises on a number of fronts, foreign and domestic, how could the major news networks -- owned by media giants News Corp (NWS), GE (GE) and Time Warner (TWX) -- devote so much airtime to an empty balloon floating over the Rocky Mountains?

Easily, wrote Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher. "The press and news agencies reported for over an hour that a boy was in the balloon, without any qualifiers, even though the only witness was a sibling who saw him climb inside," Mitchell wrote. "Only after the crash did TV hosts stress that reports of a boy in it were 'unverified' and raised the possibility of a hoax. Few had raised the issue of whether such a balloon could even lift off with a 50-pound kid inside, and then float the way it did."

Meanwhile, the Internet, led by Twitter, went wild with Balloon Boy activity, which of course included the usual tasteless commentary. In fact, the story was driven in large point by the Internet. "Balloon Boy" became the No. 1 Google trend, indicating millions of people searching for information on the story, while the Twitter hashtag #balloonboy saw very heavy tweeting, as millions collectively kvetched over little Falcon's fate.

At one point, CNN reported somberly that something -- could it be a six-year-old? -- had been seen falling from the balloon. Maps were reviewed and rescue authorities prepared to launch a manhunt for a lost child. Airspace over the Rocky Mountains was shut down -- much to the consternation of business travelers in Denver. A National Guard helicopter was deployed. Contingency plans were developed to shoot the balloon down.

In fact, this is pretty much standard operating procedure for stories involving the abduction or disappearance of a child, especially those deemed to be TV-friendly. For years, such stories -- think Natalee Holloway -- have garnered among the highest ratings in all of cable news.

"If you want to say a little prayer, you might want to do so now," intoned CNN's Rick Sanchez, seconds before the balloon hit the ground. "Great, great news to report," Wolf Blitzer exulted after the boy was found upstairs in the attic. Only later did it emerge that the Heene family has sent numerous iReport "citizen journalism" dispatches to CNN documenting their storm-chasing exploits.

The Washington Post's Ann Gerhart noted that Richard Heene's MySpace page says he "flew into Hurricane Wilma to take magnetic field measurements" in 2005, and had also reportedly told a Denver TV station that, "This year I rode a motorcycle into a mesocyclone." Gerhart also reported that Heene had said he wanted to meet "real aliens from outer space and conduct a full interview with them."

On Fox News, anchor Shepard Smith offered a rare bit of rational analysis, as reported by the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "I know where I would look for me. I would look under my bed right now. Because my dad, if I let his hot-air balloon go, if I let dad's hot-air balloon go, dad would be asking me to go to the back yard and pick a switch off the tree 'cause he was going to use it on my rear," Smith said. Of course, no one looked under the bed. Or in the attic.

Balloon boy did serve one purpose, however. He knocked Meghan McCain off the news front-burner, where she had been after posting a revealing photo of herself to Twitter last night. The photo put aspects of Ms. McCain's physiognomy on display, much to the displeasure of many people, who criticized McCain for exposing herself in such a way. A chastened McCain vowed to quit Twitter forever -- until she didn't.

Even The Wall Street Journal got into the act, covering the debate over how McCain was deploying her assets. "So I took a fun picture not thinking anything about what I was wearing but apparently anything other than a pantsuit I am a slut," The Journal reported McCain saying, followed by "what once was fun now just seems like a vessel for harassment" and "when I am alone in my apartment, I wear tank tops and sweat pants, I had no idea this makes me a 'slut', I can't even tell you how hurt I am."

Many of McCain's fellow conservatives took unbrage at the photo, which they said improperly accentuated Ms. McCain's physique. The young activist was clearly shaken, "This has been one of the hardest days of my entire life. I want to thank my amazing friends, I don't know what I would do without you!" McCain tweeted.

Well, it could be worse, of course. McCain could have been lost in a helium balloon somewhere over the Rocky Mountains.

Follow Sam Gustin, a reporter for DailyFinance, on Twitter here.

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