The tyranny of the split-screen presentation strikes the U.S. once again!


Biden's grins fuel the search for distraction: Last night, the Biden-Ryan debate ended shortly after 10:30.

By 10:40, the discussion on MSNBC had descended to what follows. This isn’t Rachel Maddow’s fault—and what Steve Schmidt says here isn’t wrong:
MADDOW (10/11/12): Let’s go now to Steve Schmidt, who’s a senior adviser to the McCain/Palin campaign in 2008.

Watching this as a Republican, Steve—I will just say in the room here, us all watching together, we were all much more riveted than we were last week during the presidential debate. But, what’s your overall reaction…?

SCHMIDT: It’s a fiery debate. I don’t think I can’t remember a debate that’s been as fiery as this one at this level.

I think Republicans will watch this, they will say Paul Ryan won. They’ll be happy with this performance. I think Democrats who watched this will be fired up about Joe Biden’s performance. I think he did what he needed to do tonight which is to calm some of the panic in the Democratic base by having a fiery performance.

But I also think this— His smiling, the laughing, the grinning, if you look at the recent history of debates, whether it’s Al Gore sighing, president George Herbert Walker Bush looking at his watch, so many of these debates have come to be dominated by these personality quirks that manifested themselves over the course of the debate as opposed to the substance of the answers in the debate. It will be interesting to see—

I think Democrats are going to love that. I think Republicans will hate it. But the small middle of the electorate, how will they react to it and how will that be covered over the next couple hours?
Schmidt wasn’t wrong in what he said. Since the networks started to air these debates in split screen, we have been saddled with the lunacy of these distractions-by-body language.

(For the record, George Bush stealing a glance at his watch was captured before split screen.)

Later last night, the Charlie Rose panel was very concerned about the extent of Biden’s grinning. Can someone tell us why Katty Kay isn’t deported immediately? Do we really have to import the British to drive this kind of crap? Have we no fools of our own?

Let’s be candid. The split screen represents the latest in the press corps’ endless search for distraction. Our journalistic culture operates on a constant search for ways to avoid real discussions.

The split screen gives us one last way to avoid talking about whatever the candidates said.

This syndrome started with Gore’s alleged sighs. Now it has spread to Biden’s grins. Last week, it gave us the specter of Obama looking down too much.

(Obama may have over-applied a precept from 2004 or 2008. At that time, candidates began to be told that they should pretend to be taking notes while the other guy talks. This was invented as a way to avoid looking bad in split-screen presentation.)

Why do the networks give us split-screen? It’s done so millionaire journalists will have even more silly shit they can discuss—in some instances, so they will be able to drive the narratives they and their cohort prefer.

So they can have brainless discussions in which they pretend to talk about "character."

Schmidt was right in what he said—although he may have been reacting to texts from the RNC or other such source. But good grief! Adding possible injury to insult, Maddow of course said this:
MADDOW (continuing directly): Do you think the smiling and laughing—For me, the way I read that was Biden saying this guy right now is lying, like, “Come on, people, do you believe this guy? Look at this clown!” I thought that’s what he meant by his smiling.
Just a guess: That is precisely what the RNC hoped some big liberal would say. They want to be able to say that Biden was being rude when he did that.

Our view? On the substance, that’s a clueless interpretation of Biden’s grinning. (Biden isn't like that.) On the politics, it may give the RNC a tool made for the use.

Biden was calling Ryan a liar! That’s what he was trying to signal! Will the RNC use this talking-point? We don’t know, but Maddow can’t seem to get her political brain out of the pseudo-liberal ghettoes of western Massachusetts. From her famous Week of Dick Jokes forward, she has betrayed an uncanny failure to grasp the way national politics works.

Where will Biden’s grinning take the debate? We don’t have the slightest idea! Absent the tyranny of the split screen, no one would have to find out.


  1. It's not only Maddow, by a long shot, though:

    For better or worse, that interpretation of Biden's smiles is general over the liberal blogosphere.

  2. MSNBC seems to think abortion and gay rights are the only democratic issues

    1. Sadly, they are.

    2. ...speaking of narratives.

    3. MSNBC is playing to its audience, along with what is allowed by its corporate overlords. And so, that is what modern "liberalism" is about.

    4. I guess that is modern liberalism

  3. I guess we're supposed to just accept Bob's insider tip - "Biden isn't like that." I think Maddow is exactly right with "Do you believe this clown?" Biden was trying to convey a kind of contempt for Ryan, possibly an over-reaction to Obama's passivity last week. Predictably, Chris Matthews thought it was great, a hilarious callback to SNL's fake quote from Matthews - "Obama forgot the first rule of debating. Talk loud and interrupt people!"

  4. A question:

    Why is always so important what the Catholic church has to say about gay rights (hate 'em), abortion (it's wrong), and contraception (you shouldn't use it) -- but it's almost never -- no, wait.. it's NEVER important what the church says about military adventurism (don't do it) and helping the poor (you've gotta do it).

    Why such bias on what tenets of the church are of political relevance?

    A question for anyone, but I'd like to hear last night's moderator answer it, for sure.

  5. I think Biden's a smart guy, and I think Biden is a smart guy who knows electoral history. I bet some thought went into those grins and chuckles, and Biden knows his audience (the Washington press corps), and more importantly, they know (and like) him. There's a much different dynamic here than the one Gore, or even Bush in '92, had to deal with.

  6. til, I don't know why you think the press corps likes Biden. When the "democratic" hacks like Schoen and Caddell were pumping the idea that Obama should ditch Biden, they took part in those discussions. The idea that Biden is prone to "gaffes"-that isn't some Fox News idea that is spread around.

    1. It's pretty well known that Biden is popular with insider Washington. Not to the degree of McCain of the '90s and beyond, but he's well liked by the people who count. Keep in mind he's been there for 40 years, so you tend to make friends and gain influence with tenure like that.

  7. Biden started his laughing when Ryan put terrorism and the Obama administration in the same sentence.

    From the lessons of Newspeak:

    "From the foregoing account it will be seen that in Newspeak the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible. It was of course possible to utter heresies of a very crude kind, a species of blasphemy.

    It would have been possible, for example, to say Big Brother is ungood. But this statement, which to an orthodox ear merely conveyed a self-evident absurdity, could not have been sustained by reasoned argument, because the necessary words were not available."

  8. IMHO Biden's childish, obnoxious behavior was probably effective, but it lowered the tone of these debates. Biden's approach nearly destroyed the debate as a forum to soberly discuss important issues. I hope the media fiercely slams Biden's conduct so that it doesn't become the new norm.

    1. David in Cal translated: My guy got his butt kicked. So I'll complain instead about how their guy behaved.

  9. It's interesting to see people from the party of "Go fuck yourself" and "You lie" wailing and rending their hair over a few laughs in a debate. Call a sitting president a liar on national television = OK; laugh at one of the most mendacious politicians in 50 years telling one of his many lies = a shocking and unprecedented breach of etiquette. Being a "conservative" is a pretty good gig these days.

  10. “Biden was calling Ryan a liar! That’s what he was trying to signal! Will the RNC use this talking-point? We don’t know, but Maddow can’t seem to get her political brain out of the pseudo-liberal ghettoes of western Massachusetts.” - bob somerby

    the case of somerby vs. maddow solved?

    i know very little about massachusetts aside fromm what probably everybody outside of the bay state knows: a lot of amrericans who have irish-catholic heritage live there.

    somerby has himself lived there, so obviously he knows a lot more than that. but hes a sophist (long form bs artist) and a good sophist plays to the ignorance of his particular audience, in this case the country at large.

    somerby remarks on (in his opinion) “the pseudo-liberal ghettos of western massachussets” and that maddow cant seem to deculturate herself from there. i interpret “ghetto” as implying, at least in part, ethnic homogeneity, and in this context, to the outsider, that would seem to likely involve americans with irish-catholic heritage.

    and as a howler reader, i would interpret “pseudo-liberal” as again involving americans with irish-catholic heritage. as all good bobophiles know, americans with irish-catholic heritage are intrinsically conservative (or psuedo-liberal at best) despite whatever sociological evidence there may be to the contrary.

    the name rachel maddow doesnt have an irish-catholic ring to it. but if she were to be of that heritage, or very importantly, close enough in bob somerbys twisted mind, then this would allow bob to get his real hate on (anti-american-with-irish-catholic-heritage) with very few knowing what hes actually up to.

    in fact, and im assuming a media hound like somerby knows this, as I understand it, she does have some irish heritage, although i dont know if its irish-catholic heritage. and her family is catholic, “very very catholic”, in her own words*. and further she has gravitated to massachussests to live . . . perhaps in order to be closer to americans of a similar background to her own, thinks somerby?

    the catholic heritage may not emanate from the irish heritage. an example of that is pat buchanan who is catholic from his majority german heritage side. his one quarter irish heritage was protestant. of course maddow would never be widely labeled as an irish-catholic as buchanan erroneously is, because she doesnt have the irish or gaelic sounding names which he does.

    its worth noting that somerby himself has some irish-catholic heritage. i would guess from analysis of his comments in this regard over the years, that he has one quarter. some of the most heated bigotries ive seen have come out of mixed ancestry where the dynamic apparently is to try to prove oneself worthy to the favored side of the family and/or society by inflicting harm on people with the heritage of the disfavored side of the family and/or society.

    1. *

    2. Shorter Guy-Who-Should-Take-His-Meds:

      No, Maddow's not Irish Catholic, but my insanity demands that Somerby's supposed agenda of destroying Irish Catholic Americans explains his criticisms of Maddow.

      Also the percentage of Irish in your blood is very important to me!

      So, yes, I am just a racist crank. Instead of lowercaseguy I should be perhaps be called the octaroonist.