W. Joseph Campbell

Kennedy-Nixon debate myth certain to circulate anew

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths on September 20, 2010 at 7:50 am

With the 50th anniversary of the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate just days away, it’s a fair bet that a particularly hardy media myth will make frequent appearances in news reports recalling the 1960 encounter.

And that’s the myth of viewer-listener disconnect, which holds that the debate’s television viewers mostly thought Senator John F. Kennedy won the encounter; those who heard the debate only on radio thought Vice President Richard M. Nixon had prevailed.

The debate myth lives on because it suggests that television–and how candidates look on the air–can be decisive in presidential elections. Like many of the media-driven myths debunked in my new book, Getting It Wrong, the debate myth also is appealing in that it offers a simplistic explanation for a complex historical event.

The viewer-listener disconnect in the 1960 debate isn’t discussed in Getting It Wrong. But I do admire the surgical dismantling of the myth that David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell presented in 1987 in the Central States Speech Journal.

They found scant support for a viewer-listener disconnect in the debate, which took place September 26, 1960.

In their article, Vancil and Pendell pointed to serious flaws in the anecdotal reports and the limited surveys that suggested disagreement among viewers and listeners in assessing what was the first televised debate between U.S. presidential candidates.

Central to the notion that radio audiences thought Nixon won the debate was a survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company. The survey indicated that by a 2-to-1 margin, radio audiences thought Nixon had prevailed.

But 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 about the debate winner,” they wrote.

Further, Vancil and Pendell noted, “the critical characteristics of the 282 listeners surveyed are unknown. …Crucial information, such as the relative numbers of Republicans and Democrats in the sample” was not captured, rendering meaningless any generalizations about the debate’s radio audience.

Vancil and Pendell also wrote that the survey’s finding that an overwhelming number of radio listeners thought Nixon won ran contrary to the tendency of debates to “reinforce pre-debate candidate preferences.” And a Gallup survey showed the electorate nearly split on the eve of the debate: 47 percent favored Nixon, 46 percent favored Kennedy, and 7 percent were undecided.

Kennedy during the debate committed no gaffes or blunders that would have swung radio listeners to Nixon. “The available evidence,” they wrote, “suggests … that Kennedy’s supporters and potential supporters were delighted with his arguments and responses to questions during the debate….”

Indeed, anecdotal evidence gathered immediately afterward–including an informal survey conducted by Associated Press correspondents of 100 people in 10 cities–indicated that the debate changed few minds.

And James Reston, then a leading Washington-based columnist for the New York Times, wrote the day 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.”

Vancil and Pendell also challenged the notion that Nixon’s haggard appearance and sweaty brow contributed greatly to viewer perceptions 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.”

Not all observers thought Nixon’s performance was especially dismaying. In its post-debate editorial, the Washington Post even said:

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

It is interesting to show undergraduate students portions of the first 1960 debate, as I sometimes do in journalism history classes. For many students, it’s their initial exposure to the debate’s televised record.

Invariably, some of them say they were surprised that Nixon didn’t look worse, given the received wisdom about his appearance that night.

They’re right: Nixon was fatigued, but he didn’t look awful debating Kennedy in what was the first of four presidential debates that fall.

What stands out, though, is how often during the first debate Nixon said he agreed with Kennedy’s views.

Not necessarily the most effective debate strategy, that.

WJC

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