W. Joseph Campbell

Who won ’60 debate? Can’t say: Didn’t see it on TV

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths on September 26, 2010 at 8:33 am

Sander Vanocur has been much in demand in the run-up to today’s 50th anniversary of the first Kennedy-Nixon televised presidential debate.

The 82-year-old Vanocur is sharp, witty, and droll–and the sole surviving member of the media panel that questioned the candidates during the debate on September 26, 1960.


Vanocur, a retired NBC newsman, has appeared on a number of panels in Washington that have examined the implications and legacies of the encounter between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. He’s also to participate on a panel today in Chicago, where the Kennedy-Nixon debate took place.

Among the comments that Vanocur has offered at these look-back events is:

“I don’t know who won the debate: I didn’t see it on television.”

He made such a remark yesterday, during a panel discussion at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news in downtown Washington. (It’s where my new myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, was launched in June.)

The comment “I didn’t see it on television” suggests the tube was decisive that night 50 years ago–and even was decisive to the outcome of the 1960 election.

Debate coverage, 1960

Which it wasn’t.

Nixon supposedly lost the debate among television viewers because he looked so poorly, what with sweaty brow, wan complexion, and ill-chosen gray suit. But among radio listeners, he is said to have bested Kennedy.

That, anyway, is the widely told media myth that has come to define the first presidential debate.

It is also an explanation for Vanocur’s comment: You had to see the debate on television to appreciate fully the importance that image made that night.

Time magazine was among the news organizations to have repeated the debate myth in the run-up to the 50th anniversary, stating:

“As the story goes, those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won. .. Those that watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was the clear winner. Many say Kennedy won the election that night.”

But television images were decisive neither in the debate (the first of four during the fall campaign), nor in the 1960 election.

David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell, in an article in the Central States Speech Journal in 1987, thoroughly dismantled the notion that disagreement among TV viewers and radio listeners characterized the debate 50 years ago.

They identified serious flaws in the anecdotal reports and the limited post-debate surveys that suggested there had been such a divergence of opinion in assessing the Kennedy- Nixon encounter.

Vancil and Pendell also challenged the notion that Nixon’s beleaguered appearance much contributed to views about the debate.

“Appearance problems, such as Nixon’s perspiring brow, could have had a negative impact on viewer perceptions,” Vancil and Pendell wrote, “but it is also possible for viewers to be sympathetic to such problems, or to interpret them as evidence of attractive or desirable qualities.”

They added: “Even if viewers disliked Nixon’s physical appearance, the relative importance of this factor is a matter of conjecture.”

Indeed. The Washington Post declared in its post-debate editorial:

“Of the two performances Mr. Nixon’s probably was the smoother.”

Vancil and Pendell also pointed out that “the inference that appearance problems caused Nixon’s loss is classic post hoc fallacy.”

Nixon’s supporters may have been dismayed by his appearance that night; but that factor was scarcely enough to prompt them to alter their opinions about the vice president’s candidacy and opt for Kennedy.

The debate 50 years ago only slightly nudged public opinion–and any effect it had on voters dissipated by election day in November.

On the eve of that debate, the U.S. electorate was split. According to the Gallup poll before the encounter in Chicago, 47 percent of registered voters 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, 49-46, among registered voters. (Gallup noted in reporting the post-debate results: “polling accuracy has not reached the degree of accuracy required to say with certainty which candidate is ahead in a close race such as the present one.”)

The popular vote for president was quite close: Kennedy won by about 113,000 votes–a margin of just 0.1 percent.

The first debate had at best a modest effect in shifting public opinion–and was a wash in the overall sweep of the 1960 presidential campaign.


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