Save Reality’s Children

Balloon Boy, the Gosselin bunch and the Jackson kids all deserve better

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Falcon Heene, the 6-year-old who likely will be stuck with the unfortunate nickname “Balloon Boy” for the rest of his hopefully long life, spoke – or, more accurately, barfed – for us all when he twice got sick during national TV interviews.

His saga – along with plight of other children irresponsibly thrust into the Reality TV spotlight – is a stomach-turning affair.

Colorado police declared Sunday that the erroneous report of Falcon's flight in a runaway, homemade Jiffy Pop-lookalike balloon was a hoax perpetrated by his parents to generate attention in a bid to snare their own reality TV show about their high-flying lives – which would be about as low as you can get.

The parents, who face possible felony charges that could put them behind bars, have denied engineering any publicity stunt. But even taking them at their word, other actions suggest they've lost any shot at appearing on a reality show celebrating great parenting.

Let’s look at the wisdom of subjecting a grade-schooler to three national television appearances, the first on CNN Thursday hours after the balloon chase (“You guys said we did this for the show,” Falcon blurted on "Larry King Live," giving cops their first clue something was amiss). The boy got sick during another interview on ABC the following morning – yet his parents let him appear a short time later on NBC’s “Today” show, where he again became ill. The family, of course, was no stranger to TV, having done two stints on the reality show "Wife Swap."

Maybe the only redeeming value of Falcon’s story is that it's snatched some attention away from the ongoing kid-centric Reality TV travesty that’s “Jon & Kate, Plus 8” – sorry, “Kate Plus 8,” or whatever they’re calling it (maybe “Trainwreck” would be better).

Gossip column mainstay Jon Gosselin, using his kids as pawns in an ugly money and divorce fight, now says the children don’t like being filmed (a pronouncement that came after he was booted from title billing). But the children’s ex-nanny told that young ones enjoy being part of the show – never mind that they range from five to nine and how would she really know anyway. She also contends she’s Jon Gosselin’s former lover and that he bragged about hacking into Kate’s email – claims he denies.

TLC, which is suing Jon Gosselin for breach of contract, reportedly plans to stop filming this sordid mess next month. But life in the public eye probably will never end for the eight Gosselin children.

Meanwhile, there were conflicting reports last week over whether the late Michael Jackson’s children will be part of a new Jackson Family reality series, tentatively set to premiere in December, barely six months after the pop star’s death. US magazine reported the three children would appear, though the Jacksons – who know a thing or two about the effect of fame on youngsters – were said to be split on the move. The latest word from A&E is that the trio will be spared camera time.

The Coogan Law went into effect 70 years to protect child actors from overwork and financial shenanigans by the adults in their lives. But how do you legislate parents and guardians who legally use children in unwise ways to strive for fame and cash?

In the Reality TV era, more than enough adults are willing to subject themselves to embarrassment and worse. But children aren’t always willing or fully informed participants, and often stand to lose the most.

The Balloon Boy case is shaping up as a cautionary tale of how the lure of reality TV can potentially tear apart a family and haunt the children for years to come – and that’s the sickening truth.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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