Rewind to one year ago: We watched, transfixed, as a giant silver balloon hurtled across the sky, chased by aircraft and vehicles on the ground. Inside was an undoubtedly terrified 6-year-old boy. The nationheld its breath.
And then exhaled in a giant sigh of disgust as it slowly became clear the whole episode was a giant hoax, perpetrated by the boy’s parents, who’d launched an unmanned — or un-boyed in this case — Mylar bag toward Denver International Airport and then called authorities. And the media.
With the first anniversary of that cringing embarrassment coming Friday, here’s a question worth contemplating: Have we learned our lesson when it comes to believing what we see on instant news feeds and the Internet?
Apparently not, social commentators say.
“We’re really just pretty plain stupid,” says Joey Skaggs, who has been staging elaborate and outrageous media hoaxes for more than 40 years to drive home the point that media literacy is sorely lacking in journalism and on the Web.
“It’s the rush to judgment, the need to be first. That, and we are predisposed to deceiving ourselves,” he told AOL News, laughing. “People are just trying to make their way through reality, and it’s really easy to fool oneself in this business.”
In other words, everyone loves a good story, and in the bombarding, instant world of e-mails, blog sites, Twitter, Facebook and online news, quite often the story gets out before its accuracy is verified.
One recent example: Bethany Storro, the 28-year-old Vancouver, Wash., resident who claimed a black woman threw a cup of acid in her face outside a Starbucks. Only a pair of sunglasses, which she’d just purchased, saved her from being blinded, she told police.
She was lying, she later admitted — but not until investigators began to question her story. Why were there no witnesses? Her burns didn’t look like splash marks, but instead like something that had been smeared on, in the way that cosmetic masks are applied.
Storro pleaded not guilty in September to three felony counts of theft — for allegedly using portions of $28,000 in good Samaritan donations for a shopping spree at Target and to settle an outstanding dermatology debt for a chemical facial peel done the previous month.
Police said she admitted to spreading drain cleaner on her face in a botched suicide attempt.
“I don’t think people have learned any lessons at all,” says Sara Scribner, a former journalist and current librarian in Pasadena, Calif., who writes and blogs about the importance of teaching students how to identify reliable information in the digital age. “You forget every time. If there’s a story that grabs you and delivers some kind of message that confirms reality for you, it’s so easy to just accept it.”
The “balloon boy” fiasco had barely been knocked down when several news agencies swallowed whole a fake press release stating that the Chamber of Commerce had reversed its position and now supported climate change legislation. The Yes Men, a liberal activist group that often impersonates officials from organizations it opposes, later claimed responsibility.
This summer, a Washington Post sportswriter was suspended for one month after deliberately posting a fake scoop on his Twitter site. Mike Wise said he made a “horrendous mistake” in sending the fake information, which he claimed was an experiment to see how widely it would be picked up.
The reasons for hoaxes are as varied as the lies themselves. Sometimes, as in “Jenny’s” case, it’s an unapologetic bid for publicity. Sometimes, like Storro’s ultimate confession, it’s to hide something the alleged victim has done themselves and carries disturbing racial overtones — as was the tragic case with Susan Smith, who claimed in 1994 that a black man had carjacked her Mazda with her two young sons strapped in their car seats. A week later, she admitted she’d driven the car into a lake, leaving her boys to drown.
And sometimes it’s just for the sheer sport of showing how badly people can be duped.
Skaggs loves that motivation. He’s made a career out of making fools of reporters and media outlets — including “Good Morning America,” The New York Times, various wire services and The Washington Post — most memorably with elaborate hoaxes reported as straight news including a bordello for randy canines called “Cathouse for Dogs” and a “cure-all vitamin” made from cockroaches.
“It never ceases to amaze me, when I come up with really elaborate hoaxes that have big clues (to their bogusness) and yet my phone still rings off the hook with reporters calling,” Skaggs said. A retrospective of his work can be seen here.
In hindsight, the “Balloon Boy” story appears bogus from the get-go. First there’s the balloon, which looked like a prop from a 1950s UFO movie, or 20-foot-wide JiffyPop container. Then there’s poor 6-year-old Falcon vomiting on camera while his parents make the rounds of morning talk shows, with both adults adamantly denying the whole thing was made up. And there’s dad Richard Heene becoming speechless when Falcon tells Wolf Blitzer on “Larry King Live” that he was hiding from his parents (and not on the spacecraft) because “you guys said that … um, we did this for the show.”
Later, police said the Heenes, who had previously appeared on the reality TV series “Wife Swap,” had staged the event in hopes of getting their own show. In December, a Colorado judge sentenced the couple to a total of 110 days in jail and eight years of probation.
Last month, the family moved to a neighborhood near Bradenton, Fla., where Richard Heene registered as a convicted felon, as required by state law, and listed his occupation as a general contractor, the St. Petersburg Times reported.
Heene, who has called himself a storm chaser and amateur scientist, is also video-blogging about discovering life on Mars by examining NASA photos.