Full of hot air

Last week, Jon Stewart gave CNN a serious tongue lashing, taking the 24-hour news channel to task for fact-checking a Saturday Night Live skit about President Barack Obama’s lack of accomplishments. The problem, Stewart explained on The Daily Show, wasn’t just that they fact-checked a SNL skit (“Did you also find out that sharks live in water and do not deliver Candygrams?”), but that such silliness distracted reporters from verifying the facts and figures of real news stories.

I couldn’t agree more with Stewart’s assessment, and CNN’s coverage of the “Balloon Boy” saga only highlighted the reasons why the network is in danger of turning into a joke.

I’m an avid CNN viewer, but lately it’s more out of habit than any sort of respect. With the network’s increasing reliance on “experts” and gadgetry—Holograms! Life-size interactive maps!—what once seemed crisply no-nonsense is quickly devolving into a circus.

The spectacle was particularly bad last Thursday. Like much of the nation, I watched, transfixed by the story of Falcon Heene, a young Colorado boy who reportedly floated away in a balloon thousands of miles above the Earth—a modern-day Dorothy Gale who, instead of heading home from Oz, appeared to be in danger of disappearing into thin air or, worse, crashing to his death.

As law enforcement raced to recover the balloon, CNN followed the story with a fervent, bloodthirsty hunger, assembling a panel of talking heads to ponder the boy’s fate in excruciating detail.

And why not. Here were the two elements that CNN loves most these days: a slow-speed chase and a missing child, all conveniently gift-wrapped in a shiny Mylar package.

Then the balloon landed in a Colorado farm field, and the news team’s excitement was palpable: “This is the best ending,” one reporter crowed, even before workers reached the balloon. “This is the best ending possible.”

Really? What if they opened the balloon’s capsule only to find a 6-year-old kid’s lifeless body? Would that still have been the best ending possible?

Of course, as we all know now, there was no boy inside. And for the next several hours, long after MSNBC and Fox switched to other topics, CNN continued with its panel, padding its coverage with mounds of theories and conjecture. I half expected CNN crime hound Nancy Grace to pop up with the rants she usually reserves for the likes of the Caylee Anthony murder case—and she probably would’ve, but then Falcon emerged from hiding and the frenzy shifted focus.

To be fair, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was the first one to “crack” the case when, during a Friday interview with the family, father Richard Heene asked Falcon why he didn’t come out, even after they called his name.

“You guys said we did this for the show,” Falcon replied.

And what a show it was—but did it deserve such exhaustive coverage? Certainly CNN wasn’t the only network guilty of milking it for every last drop of drama, but at least one news outlet viewed the story with a decidedly different perspective.

On Saturday, approximately 12 hours before Colorado authorities announced plans to press charges against the Heenes, Saturday Night Live star Seth Meyers used his “Weekend Update” platform to assess the situation as he swatted, with annoyance, at a crude replica of the shiny silver balloon hovering above his anchor desk.

“Go away, balloon,” Meyers said. “You’re not news.”

Maybe CNN should fact-check that.