Mangled Message: The Rockets’ Red Glaring Error

PBS-Fireworks.jpg“Oooh…aahh…wow…hey, wait a minute!” Something wasn’t quite right about one of America’s most-watched fireworks displays.

Across America, millions of TV viewers were watching the annual PBS live special “A Capitol Fourth”—which includes the huge Independence Day fireworks show over the U.S. Capitol’s West Lawn. Onscreen were brilliant fireworks bursting against a clear sky, even though it was cloudy in Washington, DC on the night of July 4th. And there was another clue: some footage of the supposedly live fireworks showed the Capitol dome without any scaffolding.

The Capitol is undergoing significant renova

tions right now; our family saw scaffolding inside and outside of the Capitol dome during our Spring Break trip to Washington this year.

Many viewers took notice. A representative tweet, from @kdittmar, read: Not only did they clear the clouds out of the sky, #July4thPBS cleared the scaffolding off of the Capitol.

What was going on? In order to make the fireworks display look better for TV, PBS officials decided to mix footage from prior years with the live broadcast. They just didn’t tell anyone at the time. Later, PBS confirmed that the supposedly live show was not actually live—but their message was dismissive. The show’s Twitter feed read, “We showed a combination of the best fireworks from this year and previous years. It was the patriotic thing to do.”

What in the name of Thomas Jefferson does a lack of authenticity have to do with patriotism?

We call out “Mangled Messages” when an organization violates one or more of the Five Marks of a Mangled Message:

  1. Not authentic or believable
  2. Detached from reality
  3. Focused on the sender, not the receiver
  4. Delivered inconsistently across channels and settings
  5. Not conveyed skillfully

In this case, the first two Marks are clearly evident. Substituting archival footage for live footage would not have been an egregious move, had PBS simply respected its audience enough to be honest. They weren’t, and viewers could easily (with the swipe of a finger) fact-check the scene. Once busted, PBS managed to add Mark #5 with its dismissive non-apology to the audience.  

The lesson? Don’t try to sneak something past your audience—especially when the truth is, well, self-evident.

Spot a Mangled Message—and support a worthy cause

There are unfortunately lots of Mangled Messages out there. The next time you spot one, please let me know (along with your opinion as to which of the five marks are involved). Not only will it be instructive to others, but it will also help thousands of at-risk youth. Each month we will review nominations, share the “winner” at, and make a contribution in the name of the nominator to Ambassadors of Compassion ( or another charity of the nominator’s choice.

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