NPR logo The Practical Math of 'Too Much' Telepromptering

The Practical Math of 'Too Much' Telepromptering

President Obama speaks using a teleprompter at the White House on Feb. 4. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The meme going around like a bad cough is that President Obama relies "too much" on teleprompters. A line so oft repeated it's officially reached the point of late-night pop culture status.

Different from easily proved instances of excessive use like "too much" Old Spice, the "too much" teleprompter tag is an empty accusation. There's no universally accepted measure for the appropriate amount of political telepromptering, which makes it difficult to do the practical math.

Difficult but not impossible.

The most accurate way to measure the president's teleprompteriness is by comparison of his first 66 days in office with those of his immediate predecessor. Reviewing archived video on C-SPAN and exempting such must-have prompter moments as their inaugural and State of the Union addresses, the empirical evidence is that compared with President Bush, Obama is indeed teleprompter dependent.

Jan. 23, 2001: Bush unveils his education plan. No teleprompter.

Feb. 26, 2001: Bush addresses the nation's governors. No teleprompter.

March 19, 2001: Bush addresses the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. No teleprompter.

A sampling, but you get the picture.

However...

Not being teleprompter-dependent isn't the same as being prompter-independent. As to be expected, in those addresses and others Bush read from prepared text. No big deal and not much different than reading prepared text from a teleprompter.

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For those who have never actually used one, a teleprompter isn't some kind of science-is-magic communication genie. Merely having words projected before you does not give one the ability to speak those words with additional weight or emotion.

Ladies and gentlemen, Bobby Jindal.

So, maybe the better comparison isn't how much time a president spends reading from a prompter — any prompter — but how much time he spends speaking to a national audience extemporaneously. Thus far, Obama has held as many solo press conferences as Bush over a similar time period — two.

Bush's having been on Feb. 22, 200, and March 29, 2001. However, both of Obama's press conferences have been during prime time, with more viewers watching him work without a net. Bush didn't hold his first prime timer until Oct. 11, 2001.

Obama has also held town hall meetings in Elkhart, Ind., Fort Myers, Fla., and two in California in addition to appearing prompter-free (for better or worse) on The Tonight Show as well as holding a virtual town hall meeting on the Internet.

All that is to say, compared with Bush, Obama is actually more likely to do "too little" telepromptering during "too many" Q&A sessions before "too many" people.

And while phrases may deceive, numbers don't lie.