October 2, 2004

Split Screen Decisions
Bush reacts to Kerry

Bush reacts to Kerry during first Presidential Debate

The first presidential debate was a contrast in the candidates’ positions as well as their style. But how you interpreted their performance depended on which network you tuned to.

I recorded the debate on PBS for my wife who had a prior engagement. But I watched the proceedings on NBC. I was familiar with the “32-page debate contract” agreed to by both campaigns. There were to be no reaction shots of the candidates to each other’s statements and retorts.

But early on, Fox, which provided the video feeds to all networks, stated they would not abide by those rules. And I assumed that each network would show these same visuals.

Yet, this morning, when I replayed the PBS version I was surprised to see no split screen format showing both the debater and his opponent’s reaction. NBC had liberally used this technique during its telecast. While Fox had provided the feeds, it became clear each network retained control over which camera shots aired. And when this morning’s Washington Post referred to George Bush’s “agitation,” I had to wonder which channel they had been watching.

When my wife got home she watched my PBS recording and this morning offered her analysis: George Bush looked defensive and John Kerry appeared much more presidential. Yet the PBS version diluted this element and Bush’s reactions and demeanor could only be seen from a distance.

For once I applaud Fox’s and NBC’s formatting decision. The debate rules were designed to obfuscate and neutralize the candidates’ differences —an injustice to the American people trying to make a difficult decision. No one would argue the candidates’ style is a substantive element in this campaign. Comparing the Fox News broadcast to NBC’s, NBC went even further than Fox by showing full screen reaction shots of both candidates. This further magnified Bush’s facial contortions. Fox stayed strictly to the split screen format.

My hope is that most Americans watched the debate on one of the other networks —unlike us “leftist effetes” who have traditionally supported public television. I am surprised as hell by my reaction. It’s a flip-flop of major proportions.

But at this stage of the presidential campaign when reality surfaces and differences are clarified, there is nothing wrong with changing your mind.

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