W. Joseph Campbell

In run-up to Obama-Romney encounter, myth of first presidential debate circulates anew

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on September 30, 2012 at 5:20 am

The runup to this week’s televised debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney has, inevitably, spurred the renewed circulation of a hoary media myth centered around the first such presidential debate, in September 1960.

That encounter, between John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, gave rise to the media myth of viewer-listener disagreement: Those who watched the debate on television supposedly thought Kennedy got the best of it; those who listened on radio thought Nixon was the winner.

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement was demolished long ago, in a journal article by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

But demolition hasn’t killed the myth.

Indeed, the notion that viewers and listeners came away with markedly different impressions of the debate’s outcome is just too delicious, and too appealing, for journalists to sidestep. After all, viewer-listener disagreement suggests the primacy of television and the triumph of image over substance.

And that’s just what the Chicago Tribune suggests, in an article today recalling the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, which took place September 26, 1960.

The Tribune account says Kennedy won an “unexpected and devastating victory” in that encounter — the first of four debates during that campaign.

“Yet,” the Tribune declares, “not everyone thought Kennedy had won the debate. Pollsters found that those who heard the radio broadcast thought Nixon won. The very first televised debate wasted no time in demonstrating that the ‘medium is the message,’ a maxim coined by communications guru Marshall McLuhan a few years later and leveraged by campaign managers ever since. Television viewers experienced a different debate from radio listeners.”

Who the “pollsters” were, the Tribune doesn’t say.

Only one polling organization, Sindlinger & Company, conducted a survey of any size that included a sub-sample of radio listeners.

The Sindlinger survey, taken the day after the Kennedy-Nixon debate, indicated that radio listeners thought Nixon had prevailed, by a margin of 2-to-1.

But in their article published in Central States Speech Journal in 1987, Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents — of whom only 282 had listened to the debate on radio.

They noted that “a subordinate group of 282 interviews is below the threshold normally required for a national sample.” Not only that, but just 178 of the 282 respondents “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” Vancil and Pendell wrote.

Moreover, they said, the Sindlinger sample did not specify where the radio listeners lived, adding:

“A location bias in the radio sample … could have [had] dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner.  A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Given the defects of the unrepresentative Sindlinger sample, Nixon’s reported 2-to-1 margin over Kennedy among radio listeners dissolves as meaningless.

And was the first debate really such a “devastating victory” for Kennedy?

You wouldn’t know it from reading the Tribune’s day-after coverage.

“It was a battle, not of minds, but of personalities,” the newspaper reported in its main story about the Kennedy-Nixon encounter. The candidates, the newspaper said, “were almost subdued in demeanor.”

The Tribune further noted that the debate produced “no flashes of wit, no memorable phrases, no give-and-take with a personal flavor.”

It was, the Tribune, said, “a political television show familiar to many viewers ….”


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