The Mailbag: On Faking the Fourth

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

* An additional statement from Capital Concerts is included at the bottom of this column.

Just back from vacation, our first re-acquaintance with friends, neighbors and Washington, D.C., on the night of July 4th was, as always, to head for the apartment house rooftop and watch the annual fireworks. We heard them but could not see them, except for the accompanying lightening of the low, thick clouds and misty rain that hung over the nation’s capital.

But if you watched the annual “A Capitol Fourth” television presentation on PBS, as millions of people do every year, you not only heard and watched a rousing concert but you saw beautiful fireworks against a clear night sky with several of the nation’s iconic buildings and monuments visible in the background. What you saw on television however, as anybody in the DC area could tell you, was not what you would see from any nearby rooftop or even from the ground around the Mall and the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, where the concert is staged.

A Remembrance of Things Past

It was film of fireworks from previous years when the weather cooperated. During the broadcast, however, the folks who produce it—Capital Concerts in conjunction with local station WETA—did not explain this to viewers, even though it was obvious that something wasn’t right to anybody who lived in and around Washington, D.C.

The result was a widespread, and proper, bashing of PBS—which is identified with this event more than is the producer. I have written about this concert many times in the past over one thing or another when viewers feel something or other has been slighted. But this concert and fireworks display remains hugely popular with millions of people and is one of the top single broadcasts every year on PBS.

So why the producers and the on-camera hosts of the event could not take 10 seconds to say (or post on the screen) something like: “To you folks out there around the country watching on television, the weather is not so good here on the nation’s front lawn tonight and you can’t see the fireworks very well, so we are going to show you clips from earlier displays while the great National Symphony Orchestra plays on,” is, to me, sort of mind-boggling. And was anyone at PBS looking out the window, watching the program, aware that old clips may be forthcoming, thinking that this might not go down well with some of the public, upset? The overcast/misty weather had been forecast.

The ‘Fourth’ Begins to Respond

As the contrast in the real weather and the conditions on the screen became obvious, social media (and my mailbox) began to fill with pejorative slams at PBS and the concert for its tactics and “fake” fireworks. Minutes before the end of the concert, “A Capitol Fourth” did tweet this explanation: “We showed a combination of the best fireworks from this year and previous years. It was the patriotic thing to do.” That brought still more mocking responses on social media. In the early morning hours, the program released a broader statement and apology on Twitter, saying: “We are very proud of the 2016 A Capitol Fourth celebration. Because this year’s fireworks were difficult to see due to the weather, we made the decision to intercut fireworks foot from previous A Capitol Fourth concerts for the best possible television viewing experience. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.”

Lots of Coverage, but Not What Is Hoped For

What it did cause is more news coverage than I’ve ever seen for this annual event. All negative. It made the front page of the online edition of The Washington Post, and write-ups in the Washington City Paper, the McClatchy newspapers, NBC News, the Poynter Institute’s James Warren and many other news organizations and commentators. Poynter’s Warren concluded: “Patriotic? The explanation may augur a new era of rationalizing ethical lapses.”

One senior executive at a major PBS member-station wrote to me and pointed this out: “In my view, the show should have had a live disclaimer over the fireworks telling people it was pre-recorded.  This is simple to do and given that the weather wasn’t very good, the producer should have had this cued up in the truck. Clearly they had the stock footage ready to go so clearly this was pre-planned. This not only would have been the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint, it also would have complied with FCC regulations:”

I’ve asked Capital Concerts why they didn’t offer some kind of explanation at the time on the air, but as of this writing do not have a reply. (See new statement below.) PBS, however, has responded to my inquiry.

PBS Responds: 

Capital Concerts, the organization that has produced both A CAPITOL FOURTH and THE NATIONAL MEMORIAL DAY CONCERT for more than 25 years, acknowledged after the broadcast on July 4 that they used both live footage and clips from previous fireworks presentations due to the overcast weather conditions in Washington, DC. PBS has informed the producers that, under PBS’ Editorial Standards and Policies, this usage should have been acknowledged during the program itself. An on-screen notice has been included in the streamed version of the concert.

Here’s a Sampling of Letters from Viewers:

I was disappointed that A Capitol Fourth showed obviously prior years' fireworks displays mixed with the live broadcast, without acknowledging such on the live broadcast. I expect PBS to be honest about what I'm seeing. A tweet after the broadcast admitted as much, but it was late in coming.

Craig Maile, Stillwater, OK

~ ~ ~

Well, well, well... cheating on the fireworks. The patriotic thing to do? Who are you, Fox News? Fireworks are not patriotic - honesty is patriotic, and you've proven yourselves to be worthless when it comes to integrity in broadcasting…There are few sources I rely on for the news, and my list has just shrunk by one.

David Barak, San Diego, CA

~ ~ ~

Very tacky, and lacks authenticity. During the 4th broadcast, video from a prior year’s fireworks was inserted due to the cloud cover. You just should have gone with reality. Very bad indicator of PBS integrity.

Tom Overman, Little Falls, NY

~ ~ ~

PBS pretended to broadcast a live event which was easily discovered to be a fraud. Why? Although there was -- eventually -- something that was called an apology, PBS never admitted the hoax was wrong. And so, as the credibility of our so-called news media fades into ignominy, PBS joins all the others that will lie, and do so deliberately. In this case a lie of omission. Do any of you even care that the public has so many reasons not to trust you? Or about the public scorn you've earned?

Steve Bowen, Tulsa, OK

~ ~ ~

This is addressing journalistic integrity. The Capital 4th was a sham. The idea of tuning in is a shared experience. Sure the cloud cover was low but the blatant switch was just insulting. "Put up a few star bursts and the rubes won't notice." Instead of seeing the same thing as the people there we got some clothead's idea of 'the best of" why bother having any shows in the future? Just cobble stuff together people watched in the past and to hell with the idea of sharing the event with the audience at home.

Paul Astle, Lansdale

~ ~ ~

I'm sick and tired of the media manipulating the news. If it's cloudy, just televise a cloudy fireworks show, instead of manipulating your broadcast to show a "better" fireworks display. When is the media going to get it? We don't trust you to report the news accurately. We don't want our news spun....are you also manipulating campaign news, so it makes for better TV? Your credibility (again) just went down the crapper.

Tom Wilson, Denver, CO

~ ~ ~

Last night's video tape of previous year's fireworks has to have been one of the outright dumbest moves PBS has ever inflected on its local affiliate stations, and the American people! Somebody's head better roll or you're never seeing another volunteer hour or penny from me.

S Bloomfield, Cleveland, OH

~ ~ ~

What's with the fake fireworks?

SP Buchanan, Texarkana, AR

~ ~ ~

If PBS tries to mislead its viewers on something like live fireworks how can any of its viewers continue to trust PBS?

Watkins, CO

~ ~ ~

I understand that you did NOT use live footage for all of the program A Capitol Fourth yesterday. Why would you purposely deceive the public? It was quite apparent as to what was done. Was it worth it?

Mark Wallhead, Elyria, OH

~ ~ ~

I am appalled that PBS ran video of previous July 4th fireworks in DC and played it off like it was this year's. To compound the problem, PBS's "apology" was a non-apology -- all it did was apologize for confusion. Own up to your stupid decisions and apologize for them. Don't be a politician.

Saint Paul, MN

~ ~ ~

Do I really have to explain what's wrong with this? PBS joins the ranks of once reputable stations known for reputable practices such as clearly labeling archive footage instead of trying to pawn it off as current and then saying you didn't bother to label it as old because you were being patriotic? It's patriotic to be lazy, to misrepresent, to then lie and give oneself a good citizenship award? Perhaps what was meant was "pathetic". Any apology or explanation of this will be met by me with great dubiousness -- consider the source, says I.

Linda Kent, Weymouth, MA

~ ~ ~

Editing the 2016 fireworks show by inserting footage from 2015 was wrong, even if it was acknowledged after the fact. Either show the 2016 show as it was, with rain and fog, or show the 2015 show as a rerun and announce it up front as being due to weather difficulties. But don't compromise your integrity. I trust PBS and NPR as two of the better news sources, and want to be able to keep it that way.

Dan Howell, Merryville, TN

* Statement from Capital Concerts

For thirty-six years, Capital Concerts has been proud to produce the A CAPITOL FOURTH Independence Day celebration, which offers PBS viewers across the country a chance to celebrate July Fourth in our nation’s capital.

Due to adverse weather in Washington, D.C. this year, including rain and low cloud cover, the fireworks display was difficult to see from most areas of the city. From the time the fireworks started in last night’s show, it was clear it would not be possible to capture a display that would offer a satisfactory television viewing experience. At that point in the live broadcast, we made the decision to air a combination of fireworks from this year and fireworks footage from previous editions of A CAPITOL FOURTH.  It was never our intent to camouflage that the fireworks were not occurring live and due to the wide variation in the live and prerecorded footage, as it was obvious that portions of the fireworks were from previous years. We did not want to disappoint the audience who look forward to the traditional fireworks display.  

However, we’ve heard the concerns of viewers, therefore in the future if similar conditions occur, A CAPITOL FOURTH will clearly indicate during the broadcast that pre-recorded footage is being incorporated.

Posted on July 5, 2016 at 3:35 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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