Did Obama's Tucson Speech Include "Applause" Signs to Prompt Audience?

Posted: Jan 17, 2011 2:11 PM
The answer, in short, is no.

Some conservative blogs are pillorying the White House for the egregious (if true) act of flashing "applause" indicators on the jumbotron during President Obama's memorial service remarks in Tucson last week.   I argued at the time that the speech was moving, uplifting, and presidential -- but that the audience's behavior was unruly and appallingly inappropriate, considering the venue.  While guest hosting Hugh Hewitt's show last week, I offered the mild criticism that perhaps the White House could have been more assertive in tamping down the rally-like atmosphere the event adopted, but that the president himself was not to blame.

This report -- again, if accurate -- would spectacularly invalidate my position:

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that they were surprised by the applause at the memorial pep rally on Wednesday for the victims of the Tucson shootings.

Oh really? Then why was [APPLAUSE] printed on the Jumbotron?

Defenders of the White House respond that the supposedly incriminating photo (above) displays nothing more than closed captioning for the hard of hearing.  This strikes me as the true explanation.  A few pieces of evidence lead me to this conclusion:

(1) The word "school"  indicates that [APPLAUSE] was used to describe the reaction to a sentence that had just been transcribed.   My best guess is that the moment captured above occurred just after the president delivered this line:

Judge John Roll served our legal system for nearly 40 years. (Applause.) A graduate of this university and a graduate of this law school -- (applause)

(2) If the White House actually wanted to prompt applause, they would probably have used large, bold font to attract people's attention.

(3)  There were thousands of attendees at the speech -- many of whom, presumably, were Republicans.  If the White House had really done something as indescribably tacky as employing TV sitcom-style applause signs during a memorial service, we probably would have heard a lot more about it by now.

I'm a great fan of Gateway Pundit Jim Hoft, who first broke this story, and I have nothing but respect and affection for Hot Air's Ed Morrissey, who amplified the meme in his (often hilarious) "Obamateurism of the Day" post this morning.  In this specific case, however, I suspect Jim and Ed may have jumped the gun.

UPDATE:  Upon a closer reading, I see that Ed suggests that even if the White House was not actively soliciting applause by putting the word on screen, they still may have acted crassly:

It’s hard to imagine that the university inserted the “[APPLAUSE]” tags that went with the captioning on the Jumbotron on their own.  How would the organizers know which lines were intended for applause space?  That had to come from the speech provided to the organizers by the White House for the purpose of displaying the captioning, and obviously Obama gives the final approval on his speeches, as do all Presidents. The White House may not have intended for those tags to appear on the screen (they could have been intended as stage directions for Obama, which would still be a little crass), but if not, they shouldn’t have had them in the speech in the first place.

My understanding of how closed captioning works is that an actual human being sometimes transcribes the speech, program, commentary, etc. live as it occurs.  In other instances involving prepared remarks, the transcript can be pre-loaded and automated to match the actual delivery.  Sometimes, a combination of the two approaches is used. In other words, the White House may have provided an initial transcript of the speech to the University of Arizona -- which does not foreclose the distinct possibility that a live person inserted deviations from the prepared text ("it did not") and/or descriptors ("applause") to augment the original text for purposes of accuracy.

Based on this amateur video taken at the event (skip ahead to approximately 4:30), it appears that there was a live transcription process active throughout the ceremony.  Note the on-screen description of the musical performance, as well as the appearance of the words "[cheering and applause]" before the president even arrives at the podium:

I believe this clip conclusively exonerates the White House of the accusations raised in this post.  That being said, it also serves to underscore a fair criticism of the event:  The wild cheering for Obama (and others) was unsettling and unbecoming of a memorial service.  Its organizers -- including the White House -- should have been more proactive in establishing an appropriate tone.

UPDATE II -  Ed, whose pursuit of the truth always takes precedence over adherence to the political ideology he and I share, has revised his post to reflect my concerns.