W. Joseph Campbell

Indulging in myth on debate’s 50th anniversary

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 27, 2010 at 7:12 am

News outlets indulged in the myth of viewer-listener disagreement right through the 50th anniversary yesterday of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.

The myth holds that people who watched the debate on television thought that Senator John F. Kennedy won; those who listened on radio thought Vice President Richard Nixon had the best of it.

The myth was long ago debunked by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell, in an article in Central States Speech Journal. They noted that reports of viewer-listener disagreement typically were anecdotal, and the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect were too small and unrepresentative by which to make confident judgments.

While it has been thoroughly dismantled, the myth lives on as irresistible testimony about the power of television and the importance of image in presidential politics.

An item posted yesterday at Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism online site said as much, declaring:

“The face of TV and politics changed forever on this date in history. …

“Those who watched the broadcast of the first ever televised presidential debate declared Kennedy the winner, those who listened on the radio gave the nod to Nixon. Thus, the political world changed forever.”

WLS-TV in Chicago, the city where the debate took place on September 26, 1960, said at its online site yesterday: “Most of the 70 million people who watched the event on television were convinced Kennedy won, and they voted for him in the presidential election of 1960.

“Surveys showed, though, that most of the people who listened on the radio thought Nixon won. It was the first time a nominee’s appearance may have affected voters.”

In addition, CBS Channel 2 in Chicago declared at its online site:

“Some listening on radio said it seemed like Nixon won. But as many as 74 million Americans were watching on television, and the medium became an overnight unexpected game-changer in our political system.”

As I’ve noted, specific evidence almost never is cited to support such claims about the debate. It’s as if the notion of viewer-listener disagreement is just too good, too delicious to check out–a factor that often characterizes the telling of media-driven myths. It’s a point I make in Getting it Wrong, my new book that debunks 10 prominent media myths. (While certainly prominent, the 1960 debate myth is not included in Getting It Wrong.)

There is evidence that a plurality of registered voters thought Kennedy fared better than Nixon in the debate 50 years ago.

But such impressions did not alter the campaign’s dynamic: The race remained a toss-up to Election Day.

Here’s what the evidence shows: A Gallup poll released in October 1960 reported that 43 percent of voters thought Kennedy “did the better job” in the first debate (of four debates during the campaign). Twenty-three percent thought Nixon was better; 29 percent said both candidates were about the same. Five percent offered no opinion.

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 slight change from Gallup’s survey taken just before the debate, which reported Nixon leading narrowly, by 47 percent to 46 percent.

Gallup called the post-debate shift too slight to be meaningful.

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

So, no: The debate 50 years ago didn’t change the “political world … forever.” Television wasn’t an “overnight … game-changer” in presidential campaigns. Nothing of the sort.

Media-driven myths are known to give rise to spin-off or subsidiary myths, a phenomenon I discuss in Getting It Wrong.

An example is the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which holds that the investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Nixon’s presidency in the 1970s. The spin-off or subsidiary myth is that Woodward and Bernstein’s work was so widely appealing that it prompted a surge in college students majoring in journalism.

But that wasn’t so: The surge in enrollments in journalism programs predated the Watergate scandal and was due in measure to young women entering the field.

A spin-off of the Kennedy-Nixon debate myth is that the widely watched televised encounter helped Kennedy become better known among Americans. Before then, the argument goes, Kennedy lacked much national recognition. Nixon, on the other hand, was well-known, having been vice president for almost eight years.

But in fact Kennedy had become nationally prominent long before the first debate.

So well-known that he ran well ahead of Nixon in many of the presidential trial heats that Gallup conducted nationally in late 1958 and 1959.

These matchups, while volatile, were seen by Gallup as early tests of a prospective candidate’s political strength.

The Gallup trial heat in December 1958 had Kennedy leading Nixon by 59 percent to 41 percent.

Kennedy was favored over Nixon by a larger margin, 61 percent to 39 percent, in the trial heat reported in July 1959.

To have polled as well as he did so long before the 1960 campaign, Kennedy simply could not have been an unknown in national politics.

WJC

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My many thanks to fivefeetoffury and Ed Driscoll for linking to this post.

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