In October 2009, America sat spellbound as we watched CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage of a runaway hot air balloon carrying six year old Falcon Henne. The only was that Falcon wasn’t in the balloon. At his father’s instruction, the boy was hiding in the family garage so that the Heene family could get national media exposure, and, as a result, land their own reality show. Some parents, it seems, will do anything to get their kid on TV, and CNN is always there to oblige them. In the case of Balloon Boy, all CNN did was get sucked into objective coverage of what seemed like a tragedy about to happen. But earlier this month, CNN crossed the line with the Shark Boy story.
Nine-year-old Hunter Stevens (aka “Shark Boy”) loves to fish for sharks with his dad, Kevin. Even more amazing, the dumb duo hunts the sea creatures in a tiny kayak off the Texas Gulf, where the sharks they troll for are larger than the vessel that they occupy. Sounds stupid and dangerous doesn’t it? But when CNN found out about Shark Boy, instead of calling child protective services, they gathered footage and billed the activity as an inspiring human interest story.
CNN early morning anchor Zoraida Sambolin conducted an extended live interview with Hunter and his dad, and not once did she challenge Kevin’s bad parenting skills. Quite the opposite. Sambolin mainly fawned over Shark Boy and his dad. Here’s an example of the verbal exchange between Sambolin and Kevin Stevens.
ZS: Is this safe to do? KS: If you know what you’re doing, it’s safe to do. Every adventure has a little risk to it. You just need safety first, and number one, we wear life jackets.
Sambolin’s follow-up question should have been, “Are you on crack?
Those sharks can eat the life jackets and your son along with them!” Instead, the enamored anchor told the Dad: “Congratulations for instilling this passion in your son because that’s what we always want to see.”
Little Hunter — obviously regurgitating what his dad had told him — then said, “Sharks are nice creatures if you don’t hurt them.” To which, airhead Sambolin replied, “When you catch the bigger one, come back, OK?” And so, in the span of five minutes, a news anchor congratulated, praised, and then encouraged child endangerment.
UNFORTUNATELY, IN MOST CASES, CHILD ENDANGERMENT ISN’T A JAIL-ABLE OFFENSE, BUT IN AT LEAST FOUR STATES, THE OFFEND- ER DOES RISK GOING TO THE SLAMMER.
Before I recommend punishment for father and anchor, let’s be clear about exactly what constitutes child endangerment, and what it can include.
The definition of child endangerment is “”a criminal offense that involves the subjection of minor children to inappropriate or dangerous situations.” Those “situations” can include everything from leaving a child unattended in a car, to exposing them to alcohol and drugs, to denying them proper food and medical care.
In October 2011, for example, a father was charged with child endangerment for bicycling with his sons down the wrong side of the street.
Last month, a Chicago couple was charged with child endangerment for letting their infant live in a roach-infested apartment. And, just last week, a New Jersey woman was arrested for child endangerment when she took her 5-year-old daughter into a tanning booth. Given these standards for arrest, surely taking a 9-year-old boy shark fishing in open waters constitutes child endangerment.
Unfortunately, in most cases, child endangerment isn’t a jail-able offense, but in at least four states, the offender does risk going to the slammer. In New York, the crime carries up to one year in prison. In California, it’s up to six years, and in Illinois, up to 10 years. But here’s the kicker. In Texas, home of Shark Boy, conviction of child endangerment can send the offending adult to prison for up to 20 years! That’s why CNN should have reported Shark Boy’s dad, and had him arrested for child endangerment. Then, a federal prosecutor should come after CNN and charge Ms. Sambolin and her producers with contributing to reckless endangerment of a minor. Don’t forget her challenge to young Hunter, “When you catch the bigger one, come back, OK?” What if he does catch a bigger one and doesn’t come back, Zoraida? What then? Thanks to CNN, the Hunters are now in negotiation to have their own reality show, so Shark Boy will likely be on the prowl for lots of “bigger ones” in the future. This begs the question: Who’s the bigger shark? The ones in the Gulf, or the ones at CNN?
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15)