We have been treated recently to another display of the overweening power of television to assert untenable conclusions and go on its merry way with the insouciance of a bully in a china closet. It is done not with mirrors but with split screens. The capacity to project two equal pictures in the same frame, or a big and a little one, is not new but has been newly used to illustrate the similarities of apples and oranges.
Item: the President is speaking in Alabama about corporate misdeeds and the cures foreseen for boardroom crime. It is morning and the stock market has opened. He is "split" with the Dow Jones Averages in the other screen. As he speaks, the averages fall, a lot, in keeping with the then-current swooning series of sessions. Of course, the "street" is cognizant of the President speaking somewhere down south, but the buy and sell orders are not driven by his words. Rather, they are derived from a variety of sources in the complex neural nature of the market. But the effect on the viewer is one of proximate cause. Had the President announced he had just been delivered Osama bin Laden's head in a Stetson hat box, that might have made a market difference. Had he disclosed he was holding Dick Cheney hostage in the White House basement pending arrival of the FBI, that might have made a difference. But all the market indicators before the open had signaled "down" in a big way and in the absence of some thunderous exogenous news, down it was going to be.
But the temptation among those directing the split screens was overwhelming. "Lookit that! President Bush is impotent to move the market!" And so the conclusions go through the day and into the night. Then one morning, CNN's early anchor Carol Costello was heard to say of the president's previous speech on the subject: "It was underwhelming, and it didn't do anything for Wall Street." Whether it should have, would have or could have was not to be explored.
The next opportunity to play with screens came with Fed Chairman Greenspan's semi-annual command performance before the Senate Banking Committee. The runup to the appearance was, of course, its projected effect on the stock market, which has become a perennial guessing game with his appearances and which, for good reason, is rooted in his power as the nation's central banker. As he delivered a synopsis of his much longer printed remarks, the Dow Jones Averages were jiggered onto the screens, split or superimposed. And when Greenspan had finished, the committee chairman, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, played anchor himself. He announced the result triumphantly. In the course of the Fed Chairman's remarks the Dow Industrials had improved a deep deficit by some 150 points! It was jocularly suggested by others in the room that Greenspan continue speaking, so salubrious was his presumed effect on the price of American business. What Sarbanes would have said had the market's direction been reversed is best left to the imagination. (How about nothing at all?)
In the sweep of things, the vicissitudes as they like to say, the porpoising market was not paying much attention to the President or to Greenspan. It hears different music. But the chance to portray the President as a pitiful force in economic terms was not missed.
The split screen in the hands of some producers and directors is like an AK-47 at a Sunday school picnic: dangerously inappropriate. President Bush père could attest to that. One day during his tenure he had finished a meeting with the White House press corps and was standing at the podium, joshing with the boys and girls when CNN split the screen and there appeared on the one hand the flag-draped caskets of American soldiers being returned from Panama to Dover Air Force Base, solemnly taken with honor guards from a cargo plane. Mr. Bush of course could not know this. He continued to laugh and smile with the reporters. Caskets on the one hand; a laughing Commander-in-chief on the other. The images remained there a long, long time. Long enough to establish that it was not a fluke.
Later, Mr. Bush asked that this not happen again, please, that he at least be informed when extraneous images would appear in concert with him on the screen. To my knowledge, there was no apology. Being in television means never having to say you're sorry.
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