A Thin Line Between A Hoax And A Lie

Six-year-old Falcon Heene and his father, Richard i i

Six-year-old Falcon Heene and his father, Richard, outside their home in Fort Collins, Colo. Falcon was supposedly on a runaway balloon carried by high winds to the plains of eastern Colorado on Oct. 15. But authorities say the balloon may have been part of an elaborate hoax to land the family a reality TV show. David Zalubowski/AP hide caption

itoggle caption David Zalubowski/AP
Six-year-old Falcon Heene and his father, Richard

Six-year-old Falcon Heene and his father, Richard, outside their home in Fort Collins, Colo. Falcon was supposedly on a runaway balloon carried by high winds to the plains of eastern Colorado on Oct. 15. But authorities say the balloon may have been part of an elaborate hoax to land the family a reality TV show.

David Zalubowski/AP

It took 6-year-old Falcon Heene to inject the first note of reality into the confusion over the balloon boy.

On CNN, after the makeshift balloon had landed with no one onboard, Falcon addressed his father: "You guys said that, um, we did this for the show."

The show: The hoax, that is.

Falcon would hide in the attic while his father would untether the balloon to drift across Colorado, tugging at the hearts of millions of people around the world. Richard Heene, who met his wife in acting school, planned to parlay his newfound fame into a spot on some reality TV show.

Why they call it "reality," I don't know. These are shows where crazy things happen on desert islands.

There is some parallel universe out there that has only a fragile hold on reality as we once knew it. It is the realistic but unreal TV drama that leaves the audience in doubt about what is really factual and whether that matters.

The balloon boy hoax now joins the annals of famous hoaxes dating back to the Martian invasion in 1938's War of the Worlds and the sale of the Hitler diaries in 1983. Recently, we had a group calling itself the Yes Men impersonating the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to declare falsely that the chamber now supports climate change legislation. And singer Kanye West was falsely declared dead on the Web and on Twitter.

But there's a fine line these days between hoax and just plain lying. I am thinking of the Janet Cooke invention of a child drug addict in The Washington Post in 1980, a Pulitzer Prize winner; and Jayson Blair's inventions in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

As hoaxes go, the balloon boy episode was amazingly successful. The police were less than enchanted at having been made party to the hoax.

Back in 1964, Marshall McLuhan told us that the medium is the message, that it would alter the way we see the world. What he didn't tell was that it would be harder and harder to distinguish that world.

Correction Nov. 3, 2009

In referring to the War of the Worlds hoax, Daniel Schorr said it was broadcast in 1934. The broadcast was in 1938. The Web text has been corrected.

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