Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Now, clearly I can't be talking about all people in the news business, but there does seem to be a pretty low threshold of smarts required to get into the club.

Case in point: On Sunday, as is my practice, I tuned in the Reliable Sources segment on CNN. This is the Sunday morning hour hosted by Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz that looks at the media itself. The number one topic this week was the "Balloon Boy" story that had dominated several hours of cable news network time during the week.

I was half listening to Kurtz's opening paragraph when that little alarm went off in the back of my head. You know the one that nibbles at you when the actor reads lines about the beautiful sunset on the ocean, and you know the film is set on the east coast. That tiny alarm when off when Mr. Kurtz called the silver flying object a "Hot air balloon".

OK, first, just by looking at the pictures of the thing flying like a silver UFO, taken from news helicopters, showing every single angle and view possible, it was easy to see (at least for me) that this was a Helium Balloon not much different from shiny party balloons seen at every boomer turning 50 birthday party in the land. So maybe Kurtz misspoke and a very nice producer talking in his ear will tell him its a helium balloon so that he can save face. But no, he goes on and calls the contraption a hot-air balloon again, and then again and then so many times that I lost count.

But hey, it's live TV. Maybe he got the idea it was a hot air balloon stuck in his head and just didn't realize it. But then I happened to check out his Washington Post on line piece on the same subject. Yep, first paragraph: Hot Air Balloon. This was, I hope, written while Kurtz was not under mortar fire in Iraq. Or while fleeing from a wild fire in California. So if he wrote this with time to reflect, why didn't he fact check his own story? Doesn't the Post have editors? Doesn't CNN have researchers?

This is just lazy journalism. The nature of the device in question was important to the story. A hot air balloon has a basket from which a 6 year old could fall. The helium balloon in the sky did not. A modern hot air balloon has a burner, powered by propane, to produce the hot air. It can burn or explode in a crash. Helium doesn't burn or explode. These are critical facts about the incident. This is like reporting that a child was bitten by a cat when in fact she was mauled by a lion. It ain't the same story Mr. Kurtz.

For the benefit of Howard Kurtz, and all the other news people who appear completely surprised when they report that a giant corporation, say, cheated it's customers or that NASA was "Bombing the Moon", here is a quick lesson on hot air balloons. Be careful Howard, there might be a test.

No comments: