The Practical Math of "Too Much" Telepromptering

04/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John Ridley Emmy-Winning Commentator and Writer for Esquire

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

What makes this kind of nontroversial attack slick is that, different from easily proved instances of excessive use like "too much" Old Spice, the "too much" teleprompter tag is, of course, 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 to President Bush, President Obama is indeed teleprompter-dependent. Jan. 23rd, 2001: Bush unveils his education plan -- no teleprompter; Feb. 26th, 2001: Bush addresses the Nation's Governors -- no teleprompter; March 19th, 2001: Bush addresses the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce -- no teleprompter.

A sampling, but you get the picture.


Not being teleprompter-dependent isn't the same as being prompter-independent. As to be expected, in those addresses and others President Bush read from prepared text. No big deal and not much different than reading prepared text from a teleprompter. 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, President Obama has held as many solo press conferences as former President Bush over a similar time period -- two. Bush's having been on February 22nd, 2001 and March 29th, 2001. However, both of President 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 October 11th, 2001. President Obama has also held town hall meetings in Elkhart, IN, Fort Myers, FL, 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 to President Bush, President 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.

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