The Split-Screen Stare

The other day I was in an airport, waiting for my flight.  It was one of those airports where, unfortunately, there are TVs located at all of the gate areas, and the TV was tuned to CNN.  On the screen was the standard shot of modern television journalism:  a split-screen view of two people staring intently at the camera — one talking, the other listening.

150204204906-ac-anderson-cooper-interview-with-dan-burton-00033008-large-169Somewhere, somewhen, when it became clear that TV news would be filled with “coverage” that consists primarily of one person with a generic, blue news room background talking to another person with a generic blue news room background, some anonymous producer decided that the best way to present that “story” to the viewer would be to use the split-screen approach.  The two faces are staring directly into the camera — that is, directly at us, the viewer — but are supposed to be talking to each other.

It would be interesting to know why this shot has become so ubiquitous.  Why do we need to see the face of the interviewing reporter at all?  Did somebody think that the reactions of the reporter would be part of the story — which is a little weird and contrary to the professed objectivism of the news, if you think about it — or do the networks just want to get the mugs of Anderson Cooper and their other high-priced “talent” on the air as much as possible?  As a reluctant viewer, I find the effect off-putting.  Who wants to have two people staring right at them?  If an actual human being was sitting at the airport gate area, unblinkingly eyeballing you, it would be unnerving.  The fact that the gapers are on TV doesn’t really lessen the intrusive impact all that much.

I also find myself feeling sorry for the reporters on the split-screen.  They don’t get off-camera time, when they could consult their notes to figure out the next question or scratch their noses while the person being interviewed yammers on.  Instead, they have to be on-screen, with a bland expression on their faces, trying to look attentive and thoughtful and mildly concerned at all times.  It must be exhausting, but I guess that’s why they are high-priced talent in the first place.

If it were up to me, I’d nix the split-screen shot and eliminate forever that split-screen stare.

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The Din At The Gate

Yesterday I was flying back home, connecting through O’Hare.  As we sat at our gate, crammed in the overcrowded, narrow seating area, there was a small child screeching somewhere nearby, three guys in the next row over were talking loudly, and a woman sitting two seats down was speaking into her cell phone.  And above all the din was a TV set tuned to CNN, broadcasting at sufficient volume so that anybody who was interested could hear talking heads yammer about Stormy Daniels and her alleged tryst with President Trump.

Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly a peaceful, relaxing waiting area.  Instead, it was close to the exact opposite — an area seemingly designed to jack up the tension and general unpleasantness that could have been made worse only if somebody was dragging their fingernails against a chalkboard or running a dentist’s drill with that high-pitched whine over a loudspeaker.

There’s not much you can do about a crying baby, or the talking habits of your fellow passengers.  Those are things that you just have to endure when you travel.  Notably, however, so far as I could tell nobody in our cramped waiting area was watching the CNN broadcast on the TV monitor overhead.  It was just a big part of the background racket contributing to the general unpleasantness.  And while you can argue about whether following the news at all these days is good for your mental health, do we really need to have the TV news on in public areas, bombarding us with more noise during every waking moment?  At an airport gate waiting area, at least, there’s no way to turn the TV off to try to minimize the tumult.

Finally getting on the plane, where it was a little bit quieter, was a relief.  The experience made me appreciate our Columbus airport, where there aren’t TVs blaring at every gate area and you actually can sit quietly while waiting for your flight.  I don’t know if the O’Hare airport authority gets paid something by CNN for broadcasting the news in every waiting area, but I’d sure appreciate it if they junked the TVs and reduced, at least a little, the noise pollution and the din at the gate.

 

The Big Disconnect

At some point in the future, perhaps, we’ll look back at the Trump presidency with some sense of perspective.  For now, though, as we’re in the midst of it, it’s just one weird thing after another.  And with each new, unseemly tweet or attempted put down, it becomes more and more apparent that there is a significant disconnect between the President and his supporters and at least some of the rest of us.

wrestlemania-23-donald-trump-vince-mcmahon-battle-of-billionaires-670x433The President’s various petty feuds with members of the news media are the best example of this phenomenon.  Every day, the President seems to become locked into some bitter dispute with a TV show host or a network.  His crude, mean tweets about the hosts of the Morning Joe show on MSNBC are strange because you’d expect the President to be able to remain above the fray.  Surely the President has bigger things to deal with, right?  And, even if he did feel the need to respond to the comments of a particular broadcaster, couldn’t he do so in a fashion that doesn’t involve referring to somebody’s purported plastic surgery?  Wouldn’t most Presidents conclude that very few people out in the country watch, or are even aware of, Morning Joe and therefore responding to its hosts can only call attention to what they are saying?

The President’s recent video tweet, showing a tinkered version of footage of Donald Trump at a Wrestlemania broadcast, body-slamming somebody with the CNN logo superimposed on his head, is the latest example of the disconnect.  Trump evidently thinks that the footage shows, in graphic form, that he’s not afraid to take on CNN and other members of the “mainstream media,” and that his supporters will cheer because they think the press is biased and deserves its comeuppance.  But many of the rest of us shake our heads, and not just because it seems bizarre and childish that the President would tweet out doctored footage of himself engaging in an act of physical violence.

No, the President’s latest tweet also manages to remind some of us:  Oh my god, we’ve actually elected a President of the United States who once voluntarily agreed to appear on Wrestlemania!

Should We Go To Organ Opt-Out?

There was an interesting piece on the CNN website today.  Written by a young woman whose health condition required her to receive a heart transplant, it argues that the United States should change its approach to organ donations, and go from a voluntary donation system to an opt-out system.

organ-donation-transplantationThat is, the United States would presume that all of its citizens have agreed to become organ donors unless and until they have “opted out.”  Some European countries, most recently Wales, have gone to an “opt-out” system, and the argument is that the system will allow the U.S. to avoid the many deaths — according to the writer of the CNN piece, 22 each day —  of Americans who are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant that simply doesn’t arrive in time.

I’m one of the 40 percent of Americans who have voluntarily become organ donors.  I figure that when I’m dead I won’t need my eyes, or organs, or anything else, and if somebody can get some additional use out of them, that would be great.  (Of course, I’m hoping that I’ll have gotten a lifetime’s worth of production out of them before that inescapable eventuality happens.)

Still, there’s something about an opt-out system that troubles me, ethically.  The CNN writer argues that such a program will heighten awareness of organ needs, and better match public opinion — where polls indicate that 95 percent of Americans favor organ donation — with the number of actual organ donors.  And, she contends that an opt-out approach is still voluntary, only the choice is to opt out, rather than opt in.

I disagree with that.  Unlike some, I don’t think an opt-out approach would turn doctors into ghouls who would fail to provide appropriate care in order to expedite harvesting valuable organs.  Instead, I think the issue boils down to one of very basic, essential choices.  If the United States went to an opt-out system, the government would presume to be deciding what to do with your organs, and the burden would be on you to take action to reverse the government’s decision.  I think deciding whether to contribute organs upon your death is about the most personal choice a human being can make.  The fact that the government thinks the greater good might support one choice rather than another doesn’t make the choice any less personal, or one that should be taken away from the individual, even if it is only until they state their intention to the contrary.

I hope that everyone decides to contribute their organs upon their death, so people like the young CNN contributor can live a long and healthy life — but I also think it is a decision that everyone has to make for himself.

Debatable

The sheer number of current and likely Republican candidates for President in 2016 is testing the boundaries of how the candidate selection process should work.  Currently, there are more than a dozen announced and anticipated candidates whose names you are likely to have heard of — and if you credit a website called 2016.republican-candidates.org you’ll see many more candidates who have, until now, wallowed in the realm of obscurity.

Believe it or not, the first Republican debate for the 2016 campaign is less than three months away.  It will be held in Cleveland on August 6, 2015 and broadcast by Fox News.  But how do you broadcast a meaningful debate with more than a dozen participants?  Fox has decided that you don’t.  It will allow only the top ten candidates, as shown in the five most recent national polls prior to the debate, to participate.  CNN, which is broadcasting the second debate in September, has taken a different approach:  it will hold one debate with the top ten and another with a second-tier group of candidates that get at least 1 percent support in the polls and have at least one paid campaign worker in at least two of the first four states that will hold caucuses or primaries.

Already people are wondering what these decisions mean, both in terms of the role of networks in the selection process and how campaigns are organized.  Should networks be able to winnow out those who can participate in a public debate, and won’t the Fox and CNN rules mean that campaigns will have to be conducted with an eye toward getting the candidates into the top ten tier prior to the debates?  And what does it all mean for the chances of dark-horse candidates and the Republican process?

I think networks have the right to limit participants in forums they provide.  They shouldn’t have to give valuable air time to every person who has declared their candidacy — a list that, according to the 2016.republican-candidates.org website, includes people named Skip Andrews, Michael Bickelmeyer, Kerry Bowers, and Dale Christensen (and that’s just going through the first three letters of the alphabet).  At some point, too, “debates” in which there are throngs of debaters become unmanageable and pointless, either because they turn into scrums in which people are talking over each other or are given so little time to respond that you learn almost nothing meaningful about the candidates’ positions on the issues.  You might question how the field is winnowed — it seems to me, for example, that any person who has been elected governor of a significant state is sufficient serious to warrant inclusion — but some selection mechanism inevitably will be used.

Will it change how campaigns are run?  Certainly.  A process that has become increasingly front-loaded will now become even more so, with candidates planning appearances and spending money so that they increase their chances of getting into the initial top ten and get that national debate exposure.  It also means that people who seem to be on the fence, like Ohio Governor John Kasich, had better make a decision so they are included in the crucial public opinion polls.  And will it hurt dark-horse candidates like former CEO Carly Fiorina or Dr. Ben Carson?  Not necessarily, in my view.  If candidates have an appealing message, they will get noticed.  Now, they’ll just have to work on doing it earlier.

You’ll hear people saying that all of this is bad for our democracy, but let’s not kid ourselves.  The role of money in politics, and the increasing focus on early caucuses and primaries, have made it increasingly difficult for outlier candidates to become mainstream.  That’s just the reality of the world.  Not being included in a debate in August 2015 isn’t necessarily going to be fatal to a 2016 presidential candidate, either.  How many people aside from political junkies are going to be watching it, anyway?

These early debates may be of great interest to pundits and provide strong performers with alleged momentum, but they’re not going to make a significant dent in the national consciousness.  They’ll be the first shows in a long series of shows — so why not let the producers set rules that they think will make the shows more entertaining?

The Case Of The Missing Plane

The disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is one of the weirdest stories to surface in a long time. It sounds like a Hardy Boys mystery — one where the dust jacket says that Frank and Joe apply their sleuthing skills to solve The Case of the Missing Plane — yet it has exposed all kinds of surprising omissions in how the world really works.

Yesterday we watched CNN coverage of the missing plane for about an hour, and the only conclusion you could draw is that the authorities really don’t know much about what happened, or where the plane might be. Communications systems were intentionally disabled, and the plane was deliberately diverted, but beyond that, what happened seems to be, literally, anybody’s guess. (Of course, modern TV journalism being what it is, that doesn’t stop purported experts and anchors from speculating endlessly about the fate of the plane, basing huge amounts of conjecture on a tiny foundation of actual facts. I don’t watch the news much these days, and yesterday’s exposure shows why — there’s not much actual news being reported. Calling CNN a “newscast” is an embarrassing misnomer. But, I digress.)

Here’s the amazing part: an enormous Boeing 777, filled with 239 passengers carrying cell phones, can somehow leave the radar grid and disappear. In our era of GPS chips and ever-present tracking devices, where your cellphone knows where you are whenever you touch your weather app icon, you would expect a technologically advanced jumbo jet to have multiple tracking devices that constantly stream data to ground stations and that can’t be readily disabled by terrorists or hijackers. Apparently, that’s not the case. As a result, we have no more idea about the whereabouts of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 than we did more than 75 years ago, when Amelia Earhart’s plane vanished over the Pacific. That’s an extraordinary, and unnerving, fact. If airplanes aren’t taking full advantage of modern tracking technology, why aren’t they — and what other modern technology isn’t being fully utilized when we fly the friendly skies?

Let’s not kid ourselves about the search effort, either. When the area being searched encompasses thousands of square miles, ranging from the middle of the Indian Ocean to a number of Asian countries that feature incredibly remote, mountainous terrain, it’s not really a search in the conventional sense. If the plane was hijacked by terrorists and flown to a secret location, it’s undoubtedly hidden in a building by now and invisible to satellite imaging technology. If it crashed, in the ocean or on land, are metal sensing devices scanning such a broad area really going to be able to pinpoint its location and distinguish it from other bits of flotsam and jetsam?

I’m guessing that we’re going to be hearing a lot more speculation before we start to hear actual facts about what happened to Flight 370. In the meantime, though, can we at least take steps to make sure that modern aircraft carry modern tracking technology?

The Steubenville Rape Case

If you Google “Steubenville” today, you’ll get hits on countless stories from around the world about Steubenville, Ohio.  Unfortunately for Steubenville — a depressed town in eastern Ohio — they aren’t positive stories.

The stories are about the verdicts in an awful rape case.  Two players on the Steubenville high school football team, the “Big Red,” were found guilty of raping an inebriated 16-year-old girl after an underage drinking party and then taking pictures of the victim.  The two players were sentenced to at least one year in juvenile prison, and one received another year for taking photos of the victim.

The Steubenville rape incident touched a lot of hot buttons.  Are prosecutors taking rape cases seriously and pursuing rapists as aggressively as they should?  Are high school sports stars in small town America treated like they are above the law?  How much underage drinking is going on in high schools?  How could young people be so desensitized that they would not only commit or witness a crime, but then post photos and tweet about it?   And the hot buttons continue to be pushed.  When a CNN journalist reported on the verdict yesterday and noted the emotional reaction of the defendants and the impact the verdict will have on their lives, she was castigated by some for being a “rape apologist.”

This is an ugly story all around, one that makes you sick to your stomach.  It’s a story that makes you think we need to restate, and return to, basic principles.  Rape is a crime, and rapists must be apprehended and punished.  Children need to learn concepts of basic human decency.  Star athletes must be held to the same standards of behavior of the rest of us.  Parents need to monitor their children’s activities.  And no one should be above the law.