Back in 1949, a little girl in California fell down a well. As diggers tried to save her, a huge crowd gathered. The rescue attempt, which took several days, was broadcast nationwide on radio and followed anxiously on a new medium called television.
Since that moment, kids and danger have been an irresistible lure for broadcasters. Have you ever noticed how, during "sweeps" months on local TV news, there are suddenly breathless reports on how the babysitter, bugs, chocolate or hotel beds may be and here's the money phrase "harmful to your children."
It works every time.
So it's no surprise that this past week, the biggest and most watched news story in this country was a runaway helium balloon that, for a while, was thought to contain a 6-year-old boy named Falcon Heene.
TV cameras first caught sight of the balloon Thursday. Within minutes, it seemed, all of America was watching. The balloon stayed up for two hours, traveling 50 miles, becoming the airborne equivalent of the O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase, everyone riveted, cell phones and e-mails burning up with "Are you watching this?"
And then the balloon landed.
And there was no boy inside.
A HAT TRICK OF MORNING TV
Shortly thereafter, young Falcon was discovered hiding in the garage rafters. His parents, we were told, were overwhelmed with relief.
Of course, we couldn't just stop there. We had to see for ourselves. And the family led by a father who chases storms and fancies himself a maverick meteorologist was too happy to oblige, putting his whole brood in front of CNN, as well as all three network morning shows, a feat not even Brad Pitt sitting on Tom Cruise's lap could achieve.
And then, during the CNN interview, young Falcon, when asked by his dad, Richard Heene, why he didn't come out when the parents were yelling his name, said, "You had said we did this for a show."
And the biggest storm Heene ever had chased had just landed in his living room.
Across the nation, people yelled, "Hoax!" The same cooing anchors who seemed overly concerned about the poor boy's health suddenly fired away with suggestions of manipulation. The father denied it vigorously. "I'm not selling anything," he implored to the "Today" show. He also said: "What have I got to gain out of this?"
Nothing, except maybe fame.
The most precious American currency of all.
WHY WE QUESTION EVERYTHING
Are you surprised people doubt him? In a nation where people eat bugs, sing terribly or throw themselves at strange bachelors to get a piece of celebrity, why would you be surprised?
Personally, as this goes to press, I don't think Richard Heene was devious enough to hide his own son, set this stunt in motion, and then rely on a 6-year-old to keep a secret.
More likely, he saw the attention the story was getting, and became quickly intoxicated with the camera lights so much so, that when Falcon had an apparent asthma attack during a "Good Morning America" interview and was taken off camera, Richard remained seated saying, "It's not sounding good."
Excuse me. But if my son is having an asthma attack, my response to "GMA" is, "Sorry, gotta go."
It doesn't help that Heene and his wife took part several times in the lowbrow "Wife Swap" reality show. Or that reports from the always-contacted "people who know him" suggested he had a temper and was publicity-crazed.
I don't know how much of this was manipulated. I do know we live in a world where 1) we now expect to see every expression or grief or relief; 2) we expect to judge those emotions; 3) People have no problem showing those emotions to strange cameramen; and 4) everything is suspect.
So maybe I'm wrong. I wish I weren't. I wish Heene had never done "Wife Swap." I wish Heene had hugged his son like he'd never let him go, and told reporters, "Please leave us alone." I wish viewers didn't race to watch this stuff, then argue whether it's fake as if their lives depended on it. I wish we weren't always looking to be riveted or stimulated by images on screens.
But what I wish for doesn't exist anymore. It disappeared with a girl who fell down a well and was long gone by the time a balloon flew across the sky.