Editor's Introduction and Questions

As it has for decades, the 2011 CBS Television coverage of the annual Boston Pops Fourth of July concert on the Boston Esplanade, and the massive fireworks display that followed the concert, attracted a large television audience.  The executive producer of this coverage in Boston was—as usual—Boston broadcaster, businessman and philanthropist David Mugar. But this year, we were shown a televised public event with portions that didn’t and couldn’t exist in “real life”…and, with the exception of the Boston Globe news story and editorial that follows, almost nobody seemed to notice or care that the public was being misled.  At the same time, though, there was world-wide furor over the hacking scandal involving the News of the World (a British newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation).  The paper intercepted private telephone messages in order to get a story that they hoped would attract a large readership. (See articles by Ryan J. Thomas and William R. Davie in this issue of Media Ethics.)

 

Yet, it can be argued that the fireworks story is more important—and distressing—than this hacking story because it reflects practices that are far more general and arguably have greater and more important social and political implications.

 

True, the hacking story involves basic questions about privacy and the role of the reporter (and the media), but is television coverage of a "live" public event exempt from the ethical, moral and legal obligation of a station to avoid misleading its audience?  What are the differences between "news" and "entertainment"?  Is showing something that not only didn’t happen, but couldn’t happen, likely to further reduce public trust in the media? What is the difference between "the public interest" and "what the public is interested in"?  How do people at large learn what is going on in the world? What do we need to know? Do national celebrations and anniversaries have a special status?  Do titillating violent crime stories have a similar status? Are the tamperings with reality found in entertainment programming the same as similar tampering in news-related programming? Does the popularity of computer-generated content give television an excuse to use it everywhere? Should reporters have the same freedom as commentators? Is the use of "stock" or computer-generated news or public affairs pictures or sounds ever ethical? Or should the public be taught that the picture always lies? Should there be requirements for public warnings or labels when what is being presented has been manipulated—even if (as was the case when Orson Welles presented "The War of the Worlds" on Halloween in 1938) the public ignores these warnings? These are only a few of a huge list of questions (starting with the age-old philosophical query,"what is truth?") that the Boston 4th of July fireworks coverage on CBS raises. I believe they are important questions that few in the media seem to have bothered to consider.


Media Ethics deeply appreciates the willingness of The Boston Globe—in particular, editor Marty Baron—for granting us permission to reprint the copyrighted story and editorial republished below.  All further rights are reserved by The Globe. The dates of publication were July 8, 2011 for the James H. Burnett story, "Boston gets a nonreality show," and July 9, 2011 for the editorial on the same subject, "Altered images of fireworks don’t belong on live TV."  Both may be found at www.BostonGlobe.com.

John Michael Kittross, Editor, Media Ethics


Boston Gets a Nonreality Show:  CBS broadcasts impossible view of 4th fireworks

By James H. Burnett

Those who watched Boston’s revered Fourth of July celebration Monday night on CBS were treated to spectacular views of fireworks exploding behind the State House, Quincy Market, and home plate at Fenway Park, among other places—great views, until you consider that they were physically impossible.

 

As viewers began to point out yesterday, it would not have been geographically possible to see the fireworks above and behind the landmarks in question, since the display was launched from a barge in the Charles River and in directions away from those places.

 

"According to CBS, you can see the fireworks from the right side of Quincy Market, even though Beacon Hill is in the way," wrote "Kaz," whose real name is Earl Clodfelter, a commentator on the Boston blog UniversalHub.com. "Also, they come up behind the State House when you’re standing across the road…which means the barge must have been parked on the Zakim [bridge] this year," wrote Clodfelter, a research scientist from Brighton.

 

David Mugar, the Boston-area businessman and philanthropist who has executive produced the show for nine years, confirmed yesterday that the footage was altered. He said this was the first year such alterations were made.

 

Mugar said the added images were above board because the show was entertainment and not news. He said it was no different than TV drama producer David E. Kelley using scenes from his native Boston in his show Boston Legal but shooting the bulk of each episode on a studio set in Hollywood.

 

"Absolutely, we’re proud to show scenes from our city," Mugar said. "It’s often only shown in film or in sporting matches. We were able to highlight great places in Boston, historical places with direct ties to the Fourth. So we think it was a good thing."

 

A CBS Television spokesman declined comment about whether the network was aware of, or approved of, the fireworks show being digitally altered.

 

The footage of the landmarks was shot several weeks ago. According to Mugar, camera crews from Boston 4 Productions, the production wing of Boston 4 Celebrations Foundation, the fireworks show’s parent, crisscrossed Boston and Suffolk County shooting video of famous landmarks one evening in May.

 

"I’d say we shot from about 8 p.m. till 4 or 5 the next morning," Mugar said. "Among other places, we got video of the Old North Church, the State House, Quincy Market, the statue of Paul Revere, Fenway Park, with the full cooperation of the Red Sox, who let us in and turned on certain lights for our shoot. And we did it all with the intention of superimposing the fireworks over the images. The technical process is called matting."

 

Entertainment or not, some viewers were not amused that the footage was altered.

© Copyright 2011, The Boston Globe, reprinted with permission


Altered Images of Fireworks Don’t Belong on Live TV (a Boston Globe Editorial)

Boston’s iconic sites—from the Revolutionary War to the pennant race in the American League East—are compelling enough without digital enhancements. So the decision by the Boston 4 Celebrations Foundation, which underwrites the July 4 concert and fireworks on the Esplanade, to project the display in closer-than-normal proximity to Quincy Market, Fenway Park, and other local monuments was unnecessary and inappropriate. Out-of-town viewers would be justified in feeling misled, while locals are rightly confused.

 

David Mugar, the local businessman and philanthropist behind the foundation, has set a standard for civic engagement by continuing to support the beloved public event, arguably the most memorable gathering of the year.  But he is wrong to try to justify the altering of images on the grounds that the TV presentation of the Boston Pops concert and fireworks is entertainment, not reality.

 

Mugar cited Boston producer David E. Kelley’s decision to shoot exteriors for his show Boston Legal in the city while keeping the actors on a Hollywood set.  But Kelley is following an established dramatic convention. Movie and TV dramas, long filmed in front of cardboard backdrops and on hastily assembled sound stages, aren’t remotely comparable to a live event like the Esplanade show.

 

No doubt there may be some "live" television shows with enhanced images or that use technology to remove unsightly distractions. But those shows do so at a great risk to credibility of the medium itself. TV producers have the power to graft together images from just about anywhere, but viewers turning on a live show have the right to expect it is unaltered. Otherwise, why not just plug in last year’s concert and fireworks on the DVD player?

 

Mugar should acknowledge that the altering of Boston images was a failed experiment that understandably irked some viewers. Those viewers, meanwhile, should forgive the error in recognition of his long history of generous sponsorship of a truly unique and special event.

 © Copyright 2011, The Boston Globe, reprinted with permission