In this age of hot air and balloons, how about keeping both feet on the ground?

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Heene, meeny, miny, moe, how low can we go? Apparently quite low, and not just because the country was transfixed by that untethered balloon and the possibility a 6-year-old was trapped inside.

The ballyhoo over balloon boy Falcon Heene did remind us that television can be mesmerizing with the simplest of excuses and images. From car chases and airplane wheels that don't slip into place to, well, you name it, we'll watch it -- especially if it moves, disaster is at hand, and a child is at risk.

Rarely has so much hot air been spewed over the airwaves as this past week, most of it over what turned out to be a hoax -- and a duct-taped doozie of one at that.

Even more interesting than watching the makeshift flying saucer glide over Colorado was watching the performance of the family on talk shows thereafter. The body-language experts had a field day with this one.

Safe to say that Heene pere is an affront to science and a poor excuse for a parent.

The aptly named Falcon is the sympathetic one of the bunch, with his out-of-the-mouths-of-babes revelation to CNN's Larry King -- "We were doing it for a show" -- followed by his upchucking on NBC's "Today."

OK, there is a recession, and we all need distraction. Plus, in the family's defense, there are many worse things than going to extremes to get a reality show off the ground, as it were. No doubt some executive high on the cable dial already is figuring out how to hook the Heenes: Move over, Jon & Kate, there is always an even more dysfunctional family out there waiting to be ushered into nonscripted nirvana. Plus, jail time or not, the Heenes probably will need some dough to pay for those helicopters and state troopers.

It was hard not to be entertained by it all, even hearing rational pundits like CNN's Jeffrey Toobin suggest the day after the deflation that it likely was all a legitimate mistake and the parents simply hadn't realized the kid was hiding in the garage.

For a few days, the stunt upstaged media furor over Rush Limbaugh's bid to be a minority owner of the St. Louis Rams and put the rift between the White House and Fox News in the background.

Anyone who thought the election of Barack Obama would usher in a kinder, gentler tone in our political discourse and a more widely shared view of the role of government in our lives has been vastly mistaken.

If anything, the conservative impulse has been reinvigorated in the wake of the Democratic victory -- just look at Fox News' ratings -- and everything from health care and climate change to America's proper stance on the world stage is more contentious than ever before.

Although too many liberals continue to gush over Obama's elegant rhetoric, not a few conservatives are taking him to task for his aloofness: Radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham points to his airy tendency to float above nationality and apologize for way too many things America has done through the years.

But Fox News really seems to have gotten the administration's goat. So much so that government officials, most notably Anita Dunn, have dissed Fox publicly as simply "the research arm of the Republican Party" and "not a real news organization."

That is a serious salvo, and though it might make Fox supremo Roger Ailes chuckle and Fox ratings go up, it does little to enhance the Obama cause.

Rather than obsess about Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly, the Democrats need to focus on policy, stop dithering about troop levels in Afghanistan and start clarifying how universal heath care will be paid for. Too much time seemingly is spent pointing fingers -- it reminds me of Spiro Agnew whining about those "nattering nabobs of negativity."

Not that it's unusual for politicians in power to grumble about negative news coverage. Richard Nixon was famous for it, as was Britain's Margaret Thatcher, but they didn't boycott an entire news organization.

The prickliness suggests the Obama team confounds such opinion shows as O'Reilly's and Beck's with the network's news coverage, which are different things. Moreover, the stance raises suspicion that statements from Dunn and company might be meant to dissuade other journalists from following the lead of Fox News on any particular story -- and in general from too strenuously rocking the Obama boat.

Kudos to ABC News correspondent Jake Tappert the other day for asking White House spokesman Robert Gibbs hard questions about this.

Whatever the level of vitriol, innuendo, inaccuracy or inanity, it's the price to be paid for the fractious, fragmented free-for-all otherwise known as freedom of speech. Pushback should mean aggressive engagement, not picking up your marbles and going home.

Everyone: Get a grip before this thing too balloons out of control. And Jake: Don't defect.
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