Split-Screen: The Art of Watching Two Things At Once

Posted: Thu, 09/01/2011 - 6:35pm

Not long ago, I was at the army installation at Fort Bragg, North Carolina reporting a story for the PBS NewsHour when my cellphone began to vibrate with news of a big earthquake back home in Washington, D.C.

We’d felt nothing. I’d been in the moment, interviewing a weeping 26-year-old widow about losing her husband in combat in Afghanistan. My life as split-screen.

Fast forward to this week. The President announced his intention to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress about his plan to jumpstart the nation’s sluggish, jobless, economic recovery. It just so happens (or so his Press Secretary insisted) that the address would fall on the same night as the first of three September Republican Presidential debates. Debate sponsors were elated. This would be the ultimate political split-screen.

But House Speaker John Boehner said, uh, no. And within hours the speech was rescheduled to the next evening, when the President would have to schedule himself around the kickoff to the professional football season. By scheduling the speech at 7pm instead of the 8pm start he originally requested, the President narrowly averterd another split-screen. I would have put my money on the Saints vs. the Packers in any case.

We have to face the facts. Our lives – and most certainly our politics – are becoming a series of split-screens. Do we follow the latest jobs numbers or the latest hurricane headed for the Gulf? The flooding in Vermont and New Jersey or the wildfires and drought in Oklahoma and Texas?

And in Washington, do we listen to the people we already agree with, or toggle back and forth between ideas and arguments to absorb as much as we can?

Are you still there? I’d clicked over to check my Twitter account on another screen, but I’m back.

In our newsroom, we periodically fall into spirited and smart mini-debates about false equivalency – the practice of telling both sides of a story when one version clearly does not measure up. Most days, we strive to get as close as we can to finding and sharing the truth about something – whether we are discussing the merits of massive oil pipelines or the truth about who started the latest spat between the President and the Speaker of the House.

Sometimes, we miss. Most of the time this happens because the most complicated debates do not lend themselves to simple answers. But we also drop the ball on occasion because it is easier to present an on-one-hand-on-the-other-hand debate, especially on television, than it is to include three, four or five hands.

As we spend the next week looking back at the decade since the 9/11 attacks, it’s worth remembering that it took years before we understood what happened. And it may take years more before the wars we took to avenge that day sort themselves out.

And as we spend the next year sorting through the options being presented in the Presidential election, it might also help to occasionally shut down our split-screens, just long enough to listen to one candidate, one argument, at a time.