W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Televised debates’

1960 myth ricochets around the media in advance of Obama-Romney debate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Television on October 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Kennedy, Nixon at their mythical debate

In the hours before tonight’s encounter between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the beguiling myth of the first-ever presidential debate — the notion that image trumped spoken word — has ricocheted across the U.S. news media.

News organizations of all types have been invoking the myth, which has it that television viewers overwhelmingly felt John F. Kennedy won the first televised debate in 1960 while radio listeners thought Richard M. Nixon had the best of it.

Here are a few examples of media indulgence in that fable:

  • The Boston Globe:  “According to those listening on the radio, Nixon won the debate or it was a draw. But most Americans watched it on TV, and they overwhelmingly were impressed by the … collected performance” of Kennedy.
  • The Hartford (Connecticut) Courant:  “Famously, those who listened to the radio thought that Nixon had defeated Kennedy in their famous first debate in 1960. By contrast, those watching on television thought that the dapper and cool Kennedy had won.”
  • Entertainment Weekly: “Radio audiences thought Nixon won the debate, but those who watched on television were convinced that Kennedy dominated.”
  • Huffington Post: “Richard Nixon’s haggard appearance vs. John F. Kennedy’s vigor is widely cited as contributing to a Kennedy victory in the first 1960 debate. But polls showed that was true mostly for those who watched it on TV, while those listening to the radio generally picked Nixon as victor.”
  • NBC Channel 5 in Chicago: “Pollsters found that people who listened to this debate on the radio thought that Nixon, the vice president, beat Kennedy. But those who followed on television … sided with Kennedy, who won the election.”
  • A blog of the Voice of America, the U.S. government’s voice abroad: ” Nixon’s refusal to wear makeup did not hurt him with those listening on the radio. They gave him the edge.  But Kennedy had the advantage with TV viewers and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Make that bad history.

There is quite simply no persuasive evidence to support the notion that television viewers and radio listeners decisively disagreed about the outcome of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, which took place in Chicago on September 26, 1960.

That such an effect did occur — or must have occurred — is attractive for a number of reasons: It acknowledges the presumptive power of the televised image. It renders uncomplicated the intricacies of an important political moment of long ago. And it offers an enduring though misguided lesson that content matters less than appearance.

Significantly, the broad media embrace of the debate myth ignores the powerful dismantling published 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

In their article in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell noted that one “of the most perplexing legacies of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate is the claim that radio listeners and television viewers came to opposite conclusions about the debate winners.”

They proceeded to explode that notion, pointing out that accounts of viewer-listener disagreement about the debate typically were anecdotal and impressionistic — hardly representative of the American electorate in 1960.

They also called attention to “a false impression” that “major polling organizations, such as Gallup, concentrated part of their attention on the reactions of radio listeners.” That hardly was the case.

The one polling organization that did identify radio listeners in a post-debate survey was Sindlinger & Co.

Sindlinger reported that poll respondents who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, by a 2-to-1 margin.

But the Sindlinger sub-sample of radio listeners included 282 respondents — of whom only 178 offered an opinion about the debate winner, far too few to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions.

Not only was the sub-sample unrepresentative, it did not identify from where the sub-sample of radio listeners was drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell pointed out, “could have caused 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.”

Those and several other defects render the Sindlinger result meaningless.

It should be noted that the run-up to tonight’s debate has brought some faint recognition about the mythical character of viewer-listener disagreement in the 1960 debate.

For example, the latest Washington Examiner column of political commentator Michael Barone reads as if he had consulted recent posts at Media Myth Alert.

Barone wrote:

“It is generally held that television viewers felt Kennedy won the first debate, while those listening on radio, unaware of Nixon’s improvised makeup, felt Nixon won. That’s probably overstated. Contemporary [news] accounts suggest most viewers felt both candidates did well, while the single poll of radio listeners had a small sample possibly tilted toward pro-Nixon rural areas lacking TV reception.”

Such observations, however well-reasoned, likely are to be of scant effect in countering the present contagion of the 1960 debate myth.

Like many media-driven myths, it is after all almost too delicious not to be true.


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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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