W. Joseph Campbell

USA Today invokes Kennedy-Nixon debate myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths on September 21, 2012 at 9:17 am

I noted yesterday how the myth of viewer-listener disagreement — that television viewers and radio listeners had clashing interpretations of the outcome of the Kennedy-Nixon debate in September 1960 — tends to surface at the approach of anniversaries of the historic encounter.

And so it does.

In his latest column, Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, unreservedly embraces the myth.

He writes that John F. Kennedy “looked relaxed and at ease” during the debate while Richard M. Nixon did not. “The hot TV lights appeared to give him a heavy beard,” Neuharth adds, “even though he had closely shaved before the TV appearance.”

Neuharth further asserts:

“The debate was also broadcast by radio. Listeners generally gave Nixon the nod. But TV viewers strongly favored Kennedy.”

That’s an enticing interpretation, suggesting the decisiveness of televised images in political communication.

But there’s little support for the notion of listener-viewer disagreement.

That notion, in fact, was exploded 25 years ago in an impressive dismantling published by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Writing in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell reviewed and dissected the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect in the Kennedy-Nixon debate, the first of four during that campaign.

Vancil and Pendel described how survey samples were too small to be representative — too small to allow confident or sweeping judgments about sharp disagreements among television and radio audiences.

Central to the claim that radio audiences believed Nixon won the debate was a survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company. The survey indicated that radio listeners, by a margin of 2-to-1, thought Nixon had prevailed in the debate, which took place September 26, 1960.

Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey, conducted the day after the debate, included more than 2,100 respondents — of whom only 282 had listened on radio.

Of that number, 178 (or fewer than four people per state) “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” they wrote.

Vancil and Pendell also challenged the claim that Nixon’s appearance was decisive to the debate’s outcome.

They wrote in their article in Central States Speech Journal:

“Media experts, campaign professionals, and the viewing public almost unanimously agree that Nixon had a number of appearance problems in the first debate. His grey suit, perspiring brow, loose fitting shirt, and general sense of discomfort seemed to provoke sympathetic responses from even the most enthusiastic Kennedy supporters.

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

They noted that appearance problems such as Nixon’s sweaty brow, “could have had a negative impact on viewer perceptions, but it is also possible for viewers to be sympathetic to such problems ….

“Even if viewers disliked Nixon’s appearance,” they further wrote, “the relative importance of this factor in viewers’ selection of a debate winner is a matter of conjecture.”

Vancil and Pendell identified six factors or criteria which, they said, audiences were apt to rely on in determining the winner of a presidential debate. Those factors were:

Pre-debate preferences; views on issues; candidate advocacy skills; candidate personality (“including image”); blunders, and media labeling.

“Some viewers” in the Kennedy-Nixon debate, they wrote, “may have ignored appearance in favor of an evaluation of advocacy skills.”

That appears to have been the case, at least with the Washington Post, which declared in a post-debate editorial:

“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.”

Nixon’s advocacy skills, at least for the Post, trumped the ashen, uncomfortable appearance he cut during the debate.

The Vancil-Pendell debunking is thorough and impressive. And it’s a bit surprising that their article is so infrequently recalled these days.

But, then, perhaps it’s not so surprising at all. Not given the appeal of media-driven myths, those prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Media myths, I wrote in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, often seem “almost too good to be false.”

Typically, I noted, media myths “tend to minimize or negate complexity in historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead.” Such as the notion that viewer-listener disagreement was prominent in the first-ever televised presidential debate.


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