EVERY YEAR on the Fourth of July, Americans reflect on what it means to be a patriot. To some, it’s serving in the U.S. Army. To others, it’s putting hand over heart during the national anthem. To PBS, patriotism apparently means airing fake fireworks.
On television Monday night, PBS’s “A Capitol Fourth” broadcast treated viewers to a stunning spectacle: red, white and blue fireworks flung into relief against a clear sky. There was only one problem: In reality, the rockets’ red glare was muted by mist and clouds — PBS’s version of the show was spliced together from previous years’ displays, when the weather was fairer. “It was the patriotic thing to do,” PBS said in a tweet.
No, it was the wrong thing to do. PBS is a news and public affairs organization; its mission and its duty are to tell the truth. Americans who did not watch Monday’s fireworks in person, because they live elsewhere or, yes, because of the rain, expected to see what PBS promised: a live show, rain or shine. They did not expect to see a highlights reel — and many were taken in by the trick. It was a breach of trust from an institution consistently rated one of the most trustworthy in the country.
PBS’s infraction hardly heralds the end of the broadcaster’s tenure as an institution of record. But the firecracker fiasco does underscore a tension between entertainment and integrity that media organizations everywhere have to wrestle with. PBS deserves praise for bringing a free broadcast of the festivities to Americans every year, and it’s understandable that the network wanted to give its audience a picture-perfect Independence Day. Yet a willingness to acknowledge that things are not perfect — that sometimes it rains even on the Fourth of July — is part of what makes America America. For journalists, it’s part of the job.
At the least, PBS should have disclosed its decision before it aired its phony pastiche and before discerning viewers took the network to task. Better yet, PBS should have shown the fireworks just as they were. The Fourth of July is an annual opportunity for Americans to think about what their country is and what it stands for — and then celebrate that, clouds and all.
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