campaign desk

(Tele)Prompting Speculation

Why context matters, exhibit 967b
September 17, 2008

Report with all your senses. This advice is commonly given to journalists, and it’s clear that the anonymous writer of this post on CNN’s Politicalticker blog was using his or her eyeballs to report the following 78 words yesterday:

It appears Barack Obama’s teleprompter is hitting the campaign trail.

The Democratic presidential nominee has never tried to hide the fact he delivers speeches off the device, though normally he doesn’t use one at standard campaign rallies and town hall events.

But the Illinois senator used a teleprompter at both his Colorado events Monday — making for a particularly peculiar scene in Pueblo, where the prompter was set up in the middle of what is normally a rodeo ring.

The post was accompanied by a photograph of Obama at a podium flanked by a teleprompter screen.

The next day, this information made its way into a New York Times story. “With Mr. Obama drawing so much early attention for his opposition to the Iraq war — not a message of economic populism — many of his economic proposals have received limited notice,” Jeff Zeleny wrote. “So using a teleprompter, he gave a speech here intended to set the framework for the rest of the campaign.”

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What an odd little item. Both McCain and Palin have had their teleprompter moments, so maybe Obama was due for his.

But still. The CNN post makes no effort to explain what it means that Obama is using a teleprompter at the rodeo, or why it matters. (Or why, for that matter, why a podium doesn’t look “particularly peculiar” but a teleprompter does.) And the Times piece inserts the factoid in a throwaway clause, in a manner almost designed to fuel controversy and speculation.

It’s no wonder that the crew at Fox & Friends questioned Obama spokesman Bill Burton about the prompter. Is Obama using it because the campaign wants to more closely control its message and avoid a gaffe?

And on Hannity & Colmes, the debate raged.

Sean Hannity mentioned the teleprompter as “proof that Senator Obama is just another political consultant creation, not some new breed of politician.” And guest Rick Santorum added that the use of a teleprompter “tells you that something’s taking a toll on him, and he wants to make sure he stays on message. That’s not a good sign. That shows the guy’s weakening.”

It was up to sometime voice-of-reason Alan Colmes to offer the obvious disagreement: “It sounds like you’re grasping at straws when you’re saying he brought a teleprompter with him, he’s insecure. Do you really think that has anything to do with who is going to be the better president of the United States whether or not Barack Obama is giving a speech and he’s checking with a teleprompter?”

Of course it doesn’t. And, while The New York Times can’t be held responsible for things said by pundits on Fox News, it should realize that the casual, decontextualized mention of a random fact like Obama’s teleprompter usage is almost certain to fuel irresponsible speculation among those who speculate irresponsibly for a living. It’s certainly fair to mention the news that Barack Obama is using a teleprompter during his speeches; it’s also fair to expect that the news will be accompanied by the context that allows readers to discern what, exactly, that fact actually means.

The lesson here is that one fact, when not couched in the warm, cozy confines of context, can grow legs and wander into fodder-for-speculation land, where time stands still while we debate the meaningless.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.