It was perhaps the biggest non-story of the year. Yet because it involved a child and was made for TV — very visual — the media fell for it like one of Ashton Kutcher’s marks.
We’re talking about Balloon Boy.
On Wednesday, Richard Heene and his wife were sentenced to jail time for their part in manufacturing a hoax involving their 6-year-old son and a giant helium balloon.
The Colorado couple ignited a frenzy when they claimed the young boy had floated away in the balloon after crawling into its small, makeshift gondola.
TV crews flocked to the scene and broadcast the flight live. Police and rescue crews rushed to the area. When the balloon came to rest miles away, the boy was nowhere to be found. The parents later said he had been hiding in the rafters of the garage all along.
It was later revealed the whole thing was a scam.
At the sentencing in Fort Collins, Colo. — attended by dozens of media members, of course — an attorney for the couple noted that in 1939, Orson Welles propagated one the biggest hoaxes of all time with his “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which led many Americans to believe that space aliens had invaded the nation. Panic ensued in some pockets of the country. There were even reported suicides.
Yet Mr. Welles never did a day in jail.
For what exactly is the crime that warrants the Heene couple being tossed behind bars? Embarrassing the cable networks and the local sheriff’s department? The best part of the whole thing was watching the TV talking heads go ga-ga.
Perhaps our age of politically correct hypersensitivity and 24-hour saturation media have finally triggered the end of the practical joke. That would be sad, but not surprising.