More Fourth Of July Ethics: PBS Deceives Its Audience, And Calls It A “Patriotic Thing To Do”


I hate writing posts like this. I hate the fact that the culture’s appreciation of the importance of integrity, honesty and transparency has declined so much during the Obama Administration that I have to write posts like this.

PBS’s annual coverage of the nation’s Capital’s Independence Day celebration from U.S. Capitol was handicapped by the overcast and drizzly weather in the area.  At the point in the show where the National Symphony Orchestra plays the 1812 Overture’s finale while a spectacular fireworks display explodes over the Capitol dome, someone in authority decided that the obscured fireworks  partially blocked by clouds weren’t good enough, so  a video compilation of previous years fireworks were interspersed with them without any disclosure.

To be clear, what happened was this: PBS intentionally deceived its audience, and presented old footage while representing what was on the screen as live.

Social media noticed immediately. “PBS Aired Old Fireworks Footage This Year. Did It Make A Difference?” asked various media commentators, in various forms. Gee, that’s a head-scratcher!  Huh. Tough one! Does it make a difference when a government-funded station deliberately sets out to deceive its viewers? Do lies matter? Is it okay for a broadcast of a live event to be secretly altered with film from a different time and event? Does it make a difference if the news media lies to the public?

Of course it makes a difference. It’s wrong. It’s a lie. It makes public trust impossible. What’s the difference between faking a moon landing and faking a fireworks display? Ethically, they are exactly the same, what we in the ethics field refer to as lies.

Government-funded PBS doesn’t accept this analysis , however, or subscribe to the idea that honesty is the best policy. I wonder (“If you like your fireworks display, you can keep your fireworks display”) where they got that idea? After its subterfuge was exposed, PBS responded with this:

PBS tweet

Lying to your audience is the patriotic thing to do.

That’s the attitude today of both the news media and the government, so I suppose we should not expect anything else from our government-funded media.

For the record, the rationalizations used embraced by PBS before, during and after its deception were…

8. The Trivial Trap  or “No harm no foul!” (Come on, lighten up! It’s just fireworks!)

10. The Unethical Tree in the Forest, or “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”

13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”

14. Self-validating Virtue  (We are the government and the media, and we know best)

25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!”  (What do you expect us to do, show a crummy fireworks display, just because it’s the real one?)

28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.” (It’s the Fourth of July!)

29 (a). The Gruber Variation, or “The public is too stupid to know what’s good for them”

31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now” (Hey, we’ve got a fund drive coming up!)

32. The Unethical Role Model: “He/She would have done the same thing”  ( “He/She” being Orson Welles, P.T. Barnum, Nero, the CIA, Clifford Irving, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton)

44. The Unethical Precedent, or “It’s Not The First Time” ( They just weren’t caught the other times…)

50. The Apathy Defense, or “Nobody Cares.”

Would it really have been so hard to say, “There are clouds in Washington, so we’re going to show the best fireworks from past years as the National Symphony plays”?  Sure, it was just a fireworks display. And if the PBS will lie to us about something so relatively trivial, imagine what they will be willing to lie about to make sure the election comes out the way the journalists there want.

They want us to trust them to lie to us for our own good. Once we accept that, and there are a lot of people who already do, like loyal PBS watcher Sheri, who responded to the “patriotic thing to do” excuse with…


….we have no democracy, only a sham.

Does that make a difference?



Pointer: Newsbusters

9 thoughts on “More Fourth Of July Ethics: PBS Deceives Its Audience, And Calls It A “Patriotic Thing To Do”

  1. Somewhat off-topic, but I have never understood why the 1812 Overture is such a big deal on the Fourth of July; it has nothing to do with the United States.

  2. They did much the same with the National Memorial Day Concert in 2012, when they had to stop midway through due to lightning, only to click over first to the last year’s concert, then to cue up the dress rehearsal for the rebroadcast. I think they did admit what they were doing at the time of the clickover, though why they didn’t have the dress rehearsal footage ready to go on the spot I don’t know.

  3. It’s always amazed me how so many people consider PBS and NPR absolutely objective, neutral and unbiased dispensaries of truth.

  4. I’m not surprised that they did it, I just don’t see why they lied about it. Why not say “the weather isn’t cooperating, folks; we’re going to give you a rerun of last year’s great performance” and, say, insert a window of D.C. in real time, as close as possible to the “perfect” one? If they don’t have the technology, they could borrow it from ESPN … just this once.

    The obscuring fog and bitter wind didn’t stop the crowds on San Francisco Bay — besides, they’d had theirs a couple of weeks ago:

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