W. Joseph Campbell

Kennedy-Nixon debate myth emerges–as predicted

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths on September 24, 2010 at 6:40 am

As predicted, the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the historic Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate has sparked references to the hardy and enticing media myth of TV viewer-radio listener disagreement.

The myth has it that Senator John F. Kennedy won the debate among television viewers while Vice President Richard M. Nixon was thought to have prevailed by most radio listeners.

That’s essentially what Newton Minow said yesterday in an interview on radio station WBEZ in Chicago, the city where the first Kennedy-Nixon debate took place on September 26, 1960. (Minow in 1961 was appointed by Kennedy to chair the Federal Communications Commission. He’s best known for having called television programming a “vast wasteland.”)

Minow declared in the radio interview:

“People who listened to the debate on radio tended to believe that Nixon won the debate. People who watched the debate on television felt that Kennedy won the debate.”

Like many other media-driven myths, the notion of viewer-listener disagreement in the 1960 debate tends to minimize the complexity of a historical event in favor of a simplistic, misleading, yet easily remembered interpretation.

And that is that Nixon lost the debate–and perhaps the 1960 election–because he looked poorly on television, especially so in comparison to the telegenic Kennedy.

The debate myth was expertly dismantled in 1987, in a journal article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

But still, it lives on.

And it endures despite the paucity of supporting evidence. Seldom is any supporting evidence cited in references to the purported disagreement among viewers and listeners in the debate 50 years ago.

Minow, for example, offered none in his interview on WBEZ.

Nor did Phil Ponce, a prominent Chicago TV journalist who wrote in a blog post yesterday: “People who saw the debate on TV thought Kennedy won; those who heard it on the radio gave it to Nixon.”

Nor did the editorial posted the other day at the online site of the Observer-Reporter, a newspaper in western Pennsylvania.

The editorial stated:

“Although Nixon was perceived to have been the debate winner by radio listeners, he didn’t fare as well when filtered through the unblinking, unforgiving eye of the television camera. In their living rooms, viewers saw a wan, jittery candidate with darting eyes and a five o’clock shadow.”

It further stated:

“Given how close the final result was in the 1960 presidential election–Kennedy and Nixon were separated by only [113,000] votes–perhaps Nixon could have ended up with the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. if he’d only taken a nap that day, as Kennedy did, and put on some makeup beforehand.”

Of course, the narrow outcome of the 1960 election may be interpreted another way–as evidence that the first debate (there were four in all during the campaign) was insignificant to the Kennedy’s victory.

A Gallup survey showed U.S. voters were effectively split on the eve of that debate: 47 percent favored Nixon, 46 percent favored Kennedy, and 7 percent were undecided.

The Gallup poll immediately after the first debate put Kennedy ahead by three percentage points.

The popular vote for president was, as the editorial noted, razor-thin–which suggests that any advantage Kennedy gained in the first debate dissipated over the course of the campaign.

As the journalism professor James Baughman recently pointed out in an insightful essay about the debate, “relatively few [voters] said they had changed their minds about their Election Day intentions.”

And that was the sense newspaper reporters and columnists detected, if anecdotally, in the immediate aftermath of the first debate: The election dynamic had not much changed.

James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote in a post-debate column:

“Who took the first round is a matter of individual opinion. My own view is that Kennedy gained more than Nixon, but it was a fielder’s choice, settling nothing.

“The main thing,” Reston added, “is that the nation gained in a unique and promising experiment.”

But the first iteration of that experiment has become steeped in the intervening 50 years in a blithe, appealing yet terribly misleading media myth.



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