Technology as Politics

The teleprompter debate resurfaces

Last September, the media were aflutter with discussion of then-candidate Obama’s possible over-reliance on the teleprompter during various speaking engagements. Did it mean that the Obama campaign was trying to tightly control the message in the weeks before the election? Was the sinking economy and all those numbers necessitating prompter-assisted precision? No one seemed to know what it all meant, but it didn’t stop the questions from flying.

Almost six months later, the teleprompter story has returned with two similar pieces in Politico and The New York Times. It’s also Day 2 in the Double Fluff Story Trend, after yesterday’s “Obama goes gray” WaPo/Times articles.

What sayeth the media?

Politico: Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter is unusual — not only because he is famous for his oratory, but because no other president has used one so consistently and at so many events, large and small.
Times: Presidents have been using teleprompters for more than half a century, but none relied on them as extensively as Mr. Obama has so far. While presidents typically have used them for their most important speeches to the nation — an inauguration, a State of the Union or an Oval Office address — Mr. Obama uses them for everyday routine announcements, and even for the opening statement at his news conference.

What’s especially disappointing about these stories is not that they attribute significance to what is likely just a technological preference, but that they make a partisan issue out of this affair. Both Politico and the Times turned to Republican sources to voice criticism of the president for overrelying on the prompter, quoting former Bush staffers to describe Obama as “halted,” “staged,” and “removed” as a result of his prompter use.

The similarity of these pieces raises questions about the original source of the idea. Both make use of the anecdote about a supposedly awkward teleprompter-related moment from Kathleen Sebelius’s nomination announcement, so it’s possible to imagine that Politico’s Carol E. Lee (formerly of the Times) and the Times’s Peter Baker were among a crowd of gripping reporters chitchatting about the tech-faux-pas. Or, given the dominance of quotes from ex-Bushies, one can imagine that the two reporters were baited by a GOP talking point. Or, judging by the annoyed photographers’ quotes at the end of the Politico piece, it could be that journalists are peeved that their sight lines are obscured by the prompter stands.

Who knows. The Times’s Baker tries hard to explain the prompter’s significance, and the insight it provides into the presidential motives:

For Mr. Obama, a teleprompter means message discipline, sticking close to his intended words. Every president uses prepared remarks, of course, often reading from paper or note cards. But while some of his predecessors liked to extemporize, Mr. Obama prefers the message to be just so. After all, he is a bestselling author who has had a hand in writing many of his major speeches, so his aides say he feels a certain fidelity to the crafted text.

We don’t know how Baker determined just what the prompter “means” to Obama, we just get his speculation. (It could also be that the man’s been giving a lot of heavy speeches, and wants to keep his stuff straight, but, that’s just a theory, too.) There’s no actual reporting here, just guesses.

This might be an instance of reporting as news something that’s very pertinent to the press corps, but isn’t something most Americans haven’t thought about much. And those types of articles can give readers a better understanding of what the day-to-day with the president is like, but these pieces aren’t just reportage. Their veiled, unsubstantiated criticism stinks of conflict-for-conflict’s sake, and it’s unprompted.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.