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Teleprompters and Media Ethics

Nicholas Johnson

September 27, 2004

Tung Yin, "The Yin Blog,",  September 27, 2004

Interesting media ethics issue re Gen. Abizeid on "Meet the Press"
My colleague Nicholas Johnson asks an interesting question, which I've reprinted with his permission:
Did anyone else wonder if General John Abizaid (CENTCOM Commander) was occasionally reading off of a teleprompter during the Tim Russert interview on "Meet the Press" Sunday, September 26, 2004?

The continuing slight left-to-right movement of his eyes during many/most of his answers (though not during the brief video excerpt NBC has put on its Web site) throughout the "interview," along with the total absence of any of the pauses and occasional garbled expression any of us can get caught in when speaking extemporaneously, plus the relative-to-total lack of any follow-up questions from Russert, all suggest this may have been the case.

[The transcript is available here.]

With all the focus on media ethics and professionalism these days, does this one need a comment as well?

There's nothing wrong with teleprompters. Unlike our articulate British allies, honed on Oxford debates and the House of Commons "question period," many American politicians have such difficulty putting complete sentences together that their handlers would be afraid to let them speak in public without being scripted. (On the other hand, many/most of our top military officers are well educated, capable of speaking in complete sentences, and among our "best and brightest.")

Nor is there anything wrong with using an excerpt from a scripted statement as a part of the news -- when it's obvious to the audience that's what it's getting.

Moreover, it's understandable that the White House, or Defense Department, would not want to showcase the off-the-cuff remarks of a military officer on a program like "Meet the Press." They would want to know ahead of time what he was going to say. (Though if this is a political maneuver, designed to help Bush's re-election, I would be more comfortable with the statement/s coming from a White House spokesperson than knowing a military officer is being used by the White House as a publicist for statements not his own, or with which, in fact, he may disagree.)

What bothers me is that something promoted, and televised, as an "interview," implies a more extemporaneous exchange. If, in fact, General Abizaid was provided Tim Russert's questions in advance, and either he, or someone somewhere up the chain of command (perhaps in the White House itself) was permitted to craft the answers ahead of time as well, that should have been revealed to the audience. You feel deceived by the network's lack of candor if you later discover what you watched was not what it was designed to appear to be.

What the General had to say was interesting and worth a listen regardless of who wrote it; as would have been a genuinely extemporaneous exchange between the talented Russert and the experienced General. But I would like to know, as a member of the audience, which it was.

This may have been all my imagination. It is not my intention to start a rumor; quite the contrary, I am writing in the hope I will quickly find out, from someone who knows, that my hypothesis is wrong.

Unfortunately, I didn't see this, so I can't comment, but it does seem like something is amiss.

[Posted by Tung Yin on September 27, 2004 at 01:29 PM in Politics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)]