Those Surreal Split Screens: Even the President Can’t Control This Message

By Mark Joyella 

split screen

It’s an accepted fact that President Obama, like all American presidents, has near absolute power to control his own public image. The president’s every public appearance is meticulously planned and stage-managed, from the clothes the president wears to the backdrop that awaits the president when he steps before the cameras to speak. Nothing is by chance, and every decision is made in support of the White House’s media message of the day.

Last night, we saw one example of something even the President of the United States can’t control: a split-screen. When President Obama emerged after 10 p.m. ET to make remarks about the Ferguson grand jury’s decision, his tone was measured, his words were chosen carefully. He wanted to make clear that the anger felt by many in Ferguson and across the country would be addressed. “Communities of color aren’t just making those problems up.”


But as the president spoke, the split-screen revealed violence had begun.

The images were jarring alongside the president’s calm tone, and gave viewers the sense that the president was unaware of what all of us already knew: things were falling apart. The streets were filling with fire and clouds of smoke, and the president’s message was derailing as quickly as network control rooms were making the decision to take the double box.

National Journal‘s James Oliphant writes “even as the president spoke, it felt as if the situation on the ground in Ferguson was beginning to spiral. And viewers could be forgiven for becoming transfixed by the pictures and tuning out Obama’s calls for calm.”

The power of the mixed message delivered by that split-screen — even as the president conceded, in jest, that the negative reaction “will make for good TV,” — this will surely be pondered by the White House. It’s hard to imagine the president, had he seen the same live pictures viewers were seeing, would not have made some reference to the growing tension in the streets. Not to do so would risk seeming tone deaf, which presidents work very hard to avoid.

As The Washington Post‘s Justin Moyer notes, presidents–including President Obama–have been burned by the split-screen before. This time, the images seemed to connect to the president’s words, but in such stark conflict with them, that Moyer writes “the misdeeds on display in Ferguson almost seemed to respond to Obama’s address.”