As Americans across the country are waking up to confusion and outrage after police declared the Balloon Boy ordeal a hoax and publicity stunt, one legendary con man has advice for dealing with the purported betrayal: Relax.
"It was fun and games," said Clifford Irving, the man who managed to convince the world in 1972 that he had been granted exclusive access to the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes to write his autobiography. "I don't see that anyone was hurt. The pomposity of this obviously outweighs its seriousness."
For two hours last week, millions of viewers sat transfixed in front of their televisions as they watched an out-of-control flying saucer-shaped helium balloon perilously twisting through the sky, believed to hold a terrified 6-year-old boy. But the boy was never inside, and now police say it was all planned by the Heene family of Colorado. Last week, the boy's father, Richard Heene, called allegations that it was a hoax "extremely pathetic."
Irving, whose exploits were immortalized in the 2006 Richard Gere film "The Hoax," said Americans should actually be thankful to the Heene family for alleviating boredom.
"Look at all the pleasure that Heene and his family brought to the public," he said. "Look at all the hours that were filled, the boredom that was eased."
While Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden called the alleged stunt a "10" on the bizarre scale, Falcon Heene's apparently fake journey would just be the latest in a long line of bold and elaborate hoaxes that left the media and public duped.
To pull them off, Irving said all a con man needs is inspiration, a little luck and, most important, the ongoing gullibility of the media and the people.
"This hoax is only possible because the media loves them so much and feeds them to an extremely gullible public," Irving said.
Howard Kurtz, media critic for The Washington Post, understands the appeal of a gripping breaking news story but says journalists should exercise caution.
"When you watch a story unfold on cable news, whether it's a runaway balloon or a runaway bride who turns out to have walked out on a wedding, you're seeing raw reporting, it's not quite journalism," he said. "We don't have the facts, we're throwing up the pictures, and there's a certain excitement about that. It's the aftermath, when we should be embarrassed we jumped a little too quickly."
In 2005, Georgia bride-to-be Jennifer Wilbanks traveled to Las Vegas by bus and then to Albuquerque, N.M., then called authorities and told them she had been abducted and sexually assaulted.
The trouble was, Wilbanks' report was false.
She later recanted her story and admitted to fleeing because of pressure over the imminent nuptials.
Wilbanks, now ignominiously known as the Runaway Bride, was indicted on charges she made false statements, and had to pay restitution for the police work that was performed during the search for her.
In Boston, two people were arrested after an unconventional marketing campaign that used randomly placed devices with lights caused fear and sparked a terror investigation.
"Commerce was disrupted, transportation routes were paralyzed, residents were stranded," Suffolk County, Mass., District Attorney Dan Conley said.
The campaign was conducted by Interference Inc. to promote "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," a program on Turner Network Broadcasting's Cartoon Network.
Boston Mayor Tom Menino said the incident was about "corporate greed."
Turner apologized for the campaign and agreed to pay the city $2 million for the incident.
In another well-known hoax, noted prankster Alan Abel made the rounds of television talk shows to promote a fictitious school for beggars.
Decades before, with its use of a news reporting format, Orson Welles' infamous "The War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938 had listeners across the country thinking that an invasion by martians was under way.