Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State of the State of the Union

Say what you will about President Obama, he’s a damned good speaker. Of course he is. As a politician, it’s his job to speak eloquently about whatever presses on America’s collective consciousness. When he talks about stimulating American industry, he certainly earned that rare bipartisan standing O. When he said “If you want the job done right, hire a vet,” even I wanted to hire a combat veteran.

Watching his State of the Union Speech on MSNBC last night, though, I found myself getting cheesed off. Not by the President, whose speech was almost wholly anticipated, considering he pre-leaked all his talking points. No, I got cheesed with MSNBC itself, which ran a scrolling chyron across the bottom of the screen. It began with a single question: “Do you agree with what President Obama is saying right now?

The chyron switched periodically between asking that question, and various methods of calculating the answer. A red-versus-blue bar gave aggregate numbers (unsurprisingly, given MSNBC’s leftist audience, the agree bar seldom dipped below 85 percent). A cartesian graph calculated the actual number continuously, not only representing agreement levels minute for minute, but disaggregating responses by party affiliation.

This caused the coverage of a legitimate news event, on a purported news network, to resemble a teenager live-tweeting a concert. While President Obama desperately appealed to viewers’ better angels and tried to invest a deeply divided Congress with his agenda, and John Boehner tried not to make obvious faces at the President’s shoulder, MSNBC preferred to distract viewers by selling their own opinions back to them as news.

Even Senators Bob Menendez and Elizabeth Warren weren't immune from the chyron

Arguably, the numbers did have interesting implications. Sometimes Republican, Democratic, and Independent respondents tracked close together, while sometimes they spread further apart. Somewhere around the 27-minute mark, the three lines came almost exactly together, and tracked together for nearly two minutes. Then, though the numbers spaced themselves out again, they never reclaimed the wide divides of the first ten minutes.

Ed Schultz, whose longtime show has attracted blue-collar union voters to MSNBC, a network otherwise dominated by policy professionals and scholarly wonks, pioneered this technique. He commences his show with some question, usually so lopsided that any casual viewer can predict his leftist audience’s response. Presumably he does so hoping his audience feels involved when he reads the final tally at the end of the show.

But what works on a nightly prime-time talk show doesn’t necessarily translate into a major event. Viewers who tune in for a significant news moment like a Presidential speech generally would like to pay attention to the President. We cannot do so with a constantly moving chyron across the bottom third of the screen. Despite the myth of multitasking, most human beings cannot divide their attention that way, so we understand less of both together than either alone.

Every major cable news network maintains chyrons during their news. Both Fox and CNN maintain a scrolling headline ticker across the bottom of their screens, along with boxes featuring rolling weather reports, stock tickers, and “stay tuned” sluglines, which repeat 24/7. MSNBC usually stops their chyron during their top prime-time ratings winners, but retains it during their lower-rated daylight programming.

The running tally helpfully told legislators when their base wanted them to applaud

This produces a bizarre contradiction on networks supposedly dedicated to disseminating facts: (1) enough happens worth your limited attention that we can fill an entire broadcast day, and (2) nothing is particularly worth paying attention to. These networks seemingly cannot decide whether to take themselves, and anything they say, seriously. Dedicated newshounds get frustrated trying to process constant contradictory input. One wonders why anybody keeps trying.

Somebody could argue that such devices serve their purpose. Many cable news viewers leave their preferred network running as background noise, or catch glimpses in restaurants, airport lounges, and other public spaces. Many public TVs run with the sound off, making the chyron the only part of the screen image audiences really get. And savvy viewers can separate meaningful from meaningless content. We can imagine somebody saying that.

But jamming a chyron into the State of the Union says the networks believe even this, the hallmark moment of American democracy, isn’t really worth your whole attention. It encourages unthinkingly goofy behavior: “The majority of people who agree with me think Obama said something worthwhile! I’ll think that too!” It subordinates content to technological format. It rewards smartphone-level short attention spans.

MSNBC must, certainly, do whatever pays the bills. But in this context, they’ve created a hulking gap between their featured content and their stated principles. Next time MSNBC’s celebrity anchors rend their garments, complaining that American voters have supported some unsavory candidate or agenda, here’s hoping they remember, and rue, this moment.

Seriously. On that network, does anybody doubt the real answer to that question?

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