Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

October 23, 2012

Random Thoughts: Words are tough

By Dorothy Copus Brush
Chronicle correspondent

CROSSVILLE — Elections live on words. Politics and poker may play their part but it is the words filled with promises that hooks the voter. As this new country developed, people flocked to election events for the entertainment, better known as “politickin.” As time marched on new ways of communicating developed and were eagerly embraced by politicians. They were able to reach millions of voters with one message on radio and later television.

Words were always important and in this election of 2012 words are being closely parsed for hidden meanings. To avoid costly word mistakes in speeches, politicians began using a new machine that came on the market in 1950. Although hidden from the listener’s view it gave the appearance the politician was speaking “off the cuff.” This innovation was a teleprompter and the correct words in the speech were scrolled before the eyes of the speaker.

An actor, Fred Barton, Jr., came up with the idea of a machine that would help television actors perform large amounts of material without memorizing. TV executive Irving Berlin Kahn, nephew of Irving Berlin, liked the idea and an electrical engineer, Hubert Schafly, Jr., built the teleprompter. First used on the set of a soap opera in 1950 it was a helpful tool. By 1953 Lucy and Desi Arnez , Johnny Carson and news shows were using it.

The machine uses a video camera with a shroud surrounding the lens of clear glass to keep light from reflecting into the lens. There is a video monitor reflecting the words on the screen to the eyes of the speaker by a specially prepared glass called a beam splitter. Last is the image of the subject and the image from the video monitor.

During the 1952 Republican National Convention Herbert Hoover is believed to be the first politician to face a teleprompter. It was not a happy meeting because about half way into the speech he spoke slower and slower and finally muttered, “I could do better without it!”            

Although Hoover considered it “that blasted inconvenience,” most of our presidents have continued to use the help. The teleprompter needs a human partner to operate the knob which scrolls the speech to the monitor. However, that job is much more important than turning a knob because that person becomes the prompter. He must determine the speed to scroll and stay in sync with the speaker. Most prompters study the speaker’s speech patterns beforehand and silently say the words in time with the orator.

The well-seasoned prompters now have a small business and are important in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Prompters usually prompt the same persons. One prompter was assigned to Gov. and Mrs. Romney and Ryan during the Tampa Convention.  Often the prompter’s politics differs from that of the speaker.  Several will admit they realize after they have finished that the speech was filled with words they didn’t believe but they were working for money.

President Barack Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter became apparent during the 2008 campaign and was mentioned often. Republican Rick Santorum called Obama the “reader-in-chief.” Several years ago a top White House aide was heard to say, “It’s not fair to the President that he not have his teleprompter.”

Important as this device has proved to be it has always maintained its humility. From the very beginning the ‘t’ has never been capitalized. A computer teleprompter was introduced in 1982 and in 2010 the Compu=Prompt Co. received the Technical & Engineering Emmy for “Pioneering Development in Electronic Promptings.”

A simple idea grew into a necessary ingredient for giving an error-free speech. Words are important, especially when they are correct.