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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John McLaughlin, RIP

John McLaughlin died today.  The long-time host of The McLaughlin Group, he was 89.

I haven’t watched The McLaughlin Group for years, and wasn’t even aware it was still on the air.  However, there was a time, long ago, when The McLaughlin Group was a staple of the Webner household viewing schedule.

220px-mclaughlin_johnIt was the early ’80s, when we lived in Washington, D.C., and everyone we knew ate, slept, and breathed politics.  In those days Reagan was the President and Tip O’Neill was the Speaker of the House, and there was lots to talk about in the political world.  People would actually talk about politics at the workplace, and you needed to watch shows like The McLaughlin Group and Agronsky & Company if you wanted to keep up and make sure you were aware of the latest spin coming from the Ds or the Rs.  We would come home from work on Friday night, catch the shows, and then go on with our weekend.

The McLaughlin Group was different from the other political shows because it was, well, a lot louder than traditional shows like Meet the Press, and it actually tried to be entertaining.  McLaughlin’s trademark catchphrases — like intoning “WRONG!” if a fellow panel member offered an opinion that he disagreed with — seemed fresh and funny and edgy at the time.  But the show often devolved into people arguing with each other, and when Kish and I moved back to Columbus we just stopped watching it.  Here in the heartland, all the insider chit-chat from the likes of Fred Barnes and Pat Buchanan and Eleanor Clift just seemed a lot less important.

Little did we know that The McLaughlin Group would be a kind of precursor of the ultimate direction of TV news and public affairs shows.  They moved from the boring, sober discussions of the ’60s and ’70s to the more fast-moving, glitzy, and much louder broadcasts of the modern era.  The McLaughlin Group was one of the transitional programs that paved the way for the modern approach — an approach that I think is appalling and bears as much resemblance to true journalism as the “weird trick” health advice you get on the internet bears to legitimate medicine.

I wonder if McLaughlin ever regretted his role in that change.

I Won’t Watch It

Kish and I were driving home yesterday, so we missed the TV news coverage of the awful shootings in Virginia.  We therefore didn’t see the footage of the killer gunning down two innocent people, for reasons no one will be able to explain.

We listened to the radio, though, and heard the sounds of the gunshots and the terrified and anguished screams of the witnesses — and that was bad enough.

Whatever other twisted grievances and chilling fantasies may have motivated the killer to commit a cold-blooded murder of a reporter and cameraman on live TV, it’s obvious that a desire for public attention was one of them.  I won’t give it to him, nor will I have my sensibilities jaded and perverted and corrupted by watching something so horrible.  I’m not going to look for his Facebook page, or read his “manifesto,” either, nor am I going to put a picture of him, or his criminal deed, on this post.  Consider it my little protest against publicizing the evil actions of a sick, depraved mind.

There’s a serious journalistic ethics question lurking here:  if you are a TV news program, do you broadcast the footage, which plays into the killer’s desires and potentially might lead to copycat actions, or do you decline to do so, knowing that some of your viewers might change the channel to a station that takes a different approach?  I can’t fault those outlets that broadcast the footage, on a “just report the facts” rationale, but I can applaud those networks and programs that declined to do so.  Journalists are part of society, and as a society we have an interest in discouraging murderous acts by disturbed individuals.

We live in a weird world, where ethical questions arise that wouldn’t even have been possible in an earlier, less technological age in which “social media” didn’t raise the possibility that every criminal could also become a celebrity.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Virginia shootings, it’s a truly ugly world.  I’d rather not dive into that ugliness.

No (TV) News Is Good News

During the run-up to the election, Kish and I watched increasing amounts of TV.  To be an informed voter, you need to watch the conventions and the debates and the post-debate coverage — but it got to the point where we spent far more time with the TV on, flipping from network to network, than we do normally.

With the election behind us, we’ve sworn off TV news for the foreseeable future.  Last night we had a quiet dinner at the kitchen table, then spent the evening in the family room, reading.  It was such a pleasure to enjoy each other’s company in the peaceful comfort of our home, without the blare of the TV!  Tonight we’ll do it again.

We’ll use the TV to watch some OSU basketball and football, a few treasured shows, and perhaps an HBO movie or two, but we’ll be going newsless, focusing instead on the approaching holidays and the impending return of Richard and Russell to the family homestead.  At some point, I’m sure, we’ll reengage with the world, but for now no TV news is very good news, indeed.

Dorothy Fuldheim

As great as Ghoulardi and Barnaby and Captain Penny were, no recollection of Cleveland TV personalities of the ’60s would be complete without some comment about Dorothy Fuldheim.

Dorothy Fuldheim was a legend of Cleveland television.  By the late 1960s, she had already been the undisputed leader of Cleveland TV newscasting and commentary for 20 years.  She had interviewed major historical and cultural figures, from Adolf Hitler to John Kennedy to Muhammad Ali, and even though she was well into her 70s she gave a nightly commentary on what was going on in the world. And she continued to do so long after our family moved from Akron to Columbus and left the Cleveland broadcast area.  Fuldheim did not retire until 1984, at age 91.  She died five years later.

As a kid watching those broadcasts, I never gave a thought to the fact that Dorothy Fuldheim was female and a true trailblazer for women broadcasters.  She was just Dorothy Fuldheim, on the air as she always was, giving her opinions with an absolute, unquestioned air of conviction and authenticity.  It was obvious that she meant everything she said; she was Dorothy Fuldheim and didn’t need to cowtow to anyone.  And her voice!  There was a depth and genuineness to it.  It was like the voice of the whole Midwest, coming from this one red-haired woman sitting behind the desk.  It is no wonder that her career lasted as long as it did.

The YouTube clip below, in which Dorothy Fuldheim commemorates her 86th birthday, is a good example of her unique talents.

Olbermann Is Out

Last night MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann had his last broadcast as host of the show Countdown.  The end of his show and his career at MSNBC was unexpected — so unexpected that the network continued to run a promo for his show 30 minutes after he announced his departure on air.

We’ll hear a lot about Olbermann’s departure from the pundits, the broadcasters, and the blogosphere in the next few days, with many people calling him a fearless advocate for progressive views and many others saying good riddance to a shrill voice.  I don’t really care much either way, because Kish and I stopped watching Olbermann’s show years ago.  If you wanted to view events from a consistently liberal perspective, you could watch Countdown — but no one who wanted to actually get the news, in any semblance of unbiased form, would tune in that show.  And, for us at least, Olbermann’s tiresome interactions with the pundits who always appeared on his show and shared his viewpoint, and Olbermann’s smug, absurdly self-important and self-referential commentaries, just became unwatchable.  His show not only was not objective, it also was bad TV.  Countdown wasn’t watched by many Americans, and I think that was why.

TV news needs to return to basics and get away from the kind of advocacy programming that has come to dominate the “news channels.”  The end of Olbermann’s show may be a step in the right direction.

How The Ratings Have Fallen

Last night the CBS Evening News tied its all-time low for viewers in a week.  Only 4.89 million viewers tuned in.  For that same week, about 19 million Americans — only a miniscule fraction of our total estimated population of 309 million — watched one of the three network nightly news shows.

This is a far cry from 1969, when Huntley & Brinkley and Walter Cronkite ruled the airwaves and half of all American households watched one of the three network news shows.   In 1980, 55 million Americans watched the evening news, and as late as 1993 more than 40 million Americans watched nightly newscasts. In short, in 17 years, as the population of the United States has grown, nightly news viewership has been cut by more than half.

Why?  I’m sure that having more viewing options, the ability to get news at any time through the internet or 24-hour cable news, and longer work days that make it harder to be home and in front of the set at 6:30, all have had an impact.  No doubt the identity of the anchors also is relevant; Katie Couric just doesn’t have the same gravitas as Walter Cronkite.  And perhaps Americans don’t really feel like the “news” reported by the networks is all that compelling any more, given the prevalence of “for your health” segments and other lifestyle pieces and concerns from some corners about biased reporting.

Although the causes of this phenomenon may be debatable, the consequences are not.  Whereas nightly news anchors used to have tremendous influence because they had tremendous audiences, that is no longer the case.  Political campaigns used to focus on getting shown on the nightly news because even a few moments of footage would define the public’s perception.  Now, if the NBC Nightly News decides not to cover a politician’s comments, that politician can count on getting the message out through friendly talking heads on Fox, CNN, or MSNBC, or through blogs or Youtube.  Events are no longer seen through one lens or defined by one report.  That is bad news for the networks, but it is probably good for democracy that a few people no longer have a chokehold on the images presented to Americans over their dinners.