W. Joseph Campbell

Some dubious election history from Al Jazeera English

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on September 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm

First televised presidential debate

The first televised presidential debate in 1960 gave rise to an enduring media myth — the notion that television viewers and radio listeners interpreted the encounter quite differently.

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement lives on despite its thorough dismantling 25 years ago, in an article in Central States Speech Journal by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Vancil and Pendell noted that reports of viewer-listener disagreement in the first of four debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960 typically were impressionistic and anecdotal.

Moreover, they wrote, the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect were too small and unrepresentative to allow confident or sweeping judgments.

Vancil and Pendell also challenged the notion that Nixon’s haggard appearance and sweaty brow contributed powerfully to television viewers’ perceptions about the debate, which took place September 26, 1960.

“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 also wrote that “the inference that appearance problems caused Nixon’s loss, or Kennedy’s victory [in the debate] is classic post hoc fallacy.”

Their debunking notwithstanding, the myth of viewer-listener disagreement tends to resurface at or near the anniversaries of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.

Take, for example, a commentary posted today at the English-language online site of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic television network.

The commentary describes the first Kennedy-Nixon debate as “a bellwether” and asserts that “listeners tuning in via radio considered the debate a draw or even a slight win for Nixon. But the 65 million who tuned in by TV saw something very different. Kennedy appeared vigorous yet relaxed, while Nixon looked pale and nervous. … Those viewing the debate on television judged Kennedy as the clear winner.”

But as Vancil and Pendell reported years ago, there is no persuasive, compelling evidence to support such claims.

Not only that, but contemporaneous evidence, including public opinion polls, offer scant support for the notion that television audiences “judged Kennedy as the clear winner.”

To be sure, not all observers saw it that way in late September 1960. In its post-debate editorial, the Washington Post declared, for example:

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

“He is an accomplished debater with a professional polish, and he managed to convey a slightly patronizing air of a master instructing a pupil.”

And the Los Angeles Times said in an editorial (beneath the headline “A slow fight to a draw”) that most television viewers of the debate probably “felt as we did: they were disappointed because (a) they could not pick a winner and (b) they could not find that any single issue had been sharpened up by the abrasives of debate.”

The nationally prominent columnist, James Reston, wrote in the New York Times after the debate:

“This TV program did not do any of the dramatic things predicted for it. It did not make or break either candidate. … 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.”

A Gallup poll released in October 1960 reported that 43 percent of the debate’s viewers and listeners thought Kennedy “did the better job.” Twenty-three percent thought Nixon’s performance was better, and 29 percent said the candidates were about the same. Five percent offered no opinion.

But opinions about the debate did not translate into a decisive advantage for Kennedy. The same survey reported Kennedy was narrowly ahead in the race, by 49 percent to 46 percent, with 5 percent undecided.

That result represented a modest change from Gallup’s poll taken just before the debate, which reported Nixon leading narrowly, by 47 percent to 46 percent.

But Gallup described the post-debate shift as too slight to be meaningful.

“The prudent reader can see,” George Gallup, head of the polling organization, wrote in describing the results, “that 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.”


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