Obama and the Teleprompter

Following this and this.

Obama's opening statement at this evening's press conference, delivered no doubt with the help of a teleprompter, sounded smoother and more polished than his real-time answers through the rest of the event.

The same is true for any public figure who has learned to use a teleprompter (harder than it seems) and whose teleprompter-ready material suits his or her natural speaking style. It sounds smoother than extemporized speech because it should be smoother. People don't naturally speak in parsed and polished sentences, even eloquent people. When we are listening to what we know is spontaneous rather than scripted speech, we listen in a different way -- we listen past grammatical glitches, repetitions, and other things that would be "flaws" on a printed page or in a formal oration. If you don't believe me, look back for any extemporized performance that was judged to be riveting by audiences in real time. (A campaign rally, a TV interview, a debate, the closing argument in a trial.) If you then read a word-by-word transcript, it will look like a mess.

The important point with Obama is that the content, command of fact and concept, and overall intelligence of his extemporized answers matched that of the scripted presentation. That could not have been so if he were teleprompter-dependent. For example: by the end of his term, George W. Bush had become quite effective in delivering a formal speech. His interview- and press conference performance if anything deteriorated through his time in office.

The whole "Obama can't talk on his own" concept is bizarre, given his performance through two years of stump speeches and debates during the campaign. But it seems to have gotten so much credence in the right-wing world that it is worth addressing head on.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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