W. Joseph Campbell

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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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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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Some dubious election history from Al Jazeera English

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on September 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm

First televised presidential debate

The first televised presidential debate in 1960 gave rise to an enduring media myth — the notion that television viewers and radio listeners interpreted the encounter quite differently.

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement lives on despite its thorough dismantling 25 years ago, in an article in Central States Speech Journal by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Vancil and Pendell noted that reports of viewer-listener disagreement in the first of four debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960 typically were impressionistic and anecdotal.

Moreover, they wrote, the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect were too small and unrepresentative to allow confident or sweeping judgments.

Vancil and Pendell also challenged the notion that Nixon’s haggard appearance and sweaty brow contributed powerfully to television viewers’ perceptions about the debate, which took place September 26, 1960.

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

Their debunking notwithstanding, the myth of viewer-listener disagreement tends to resurface at or near the anniversaries of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.

Take, for example, a commentary posted today at the English-language online site of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic television network.

The commentary describes the first Kennedy-Nixon debate as “a bellwether” and asserts that “listeners tuning in via radio considered the debate a draw or even a slight win for Nixon. But the 65 million who tuned in by TV saw something very different. Kennedy appeared vigorous yet relaxed, while Nixon looked pale and nervous. … Those viewing the debate on television judged Kennedy as the clear winner.”

But as Vancil and Pendell reported years ago, there is no persuasive, compelling evidence to support such claims.

Not only that, but contemporaneous evidence, including public opinion polls, offer scant support for the notion that television audiences “judged Kennedy as the clear winner.”

To be sure, not all observers saw it that way in late September 1960. In its post-debate editorial, the Washington Post declared, for example:

“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.”

And the Los Angeles Times said in an editorial (beneath the headline “A slow fight to a draw”) that most television viewers of the debate probably “felt as we did: they were disappointed because (a) they could not pick a winner and (b) they could not find that any single issue had been sharpened up by the abrasives of debate.”

The nationally prominent columnist, James Reston, wrote in the New York Times 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. … Who took the first round is a matter of individual opinion. My own view is that Kennedy gained more than Nixon, but it was a fielder’s choice, settling nothing.”

A Gallup poll released in October 1960 reported that 43 percent of the debate’s viewers and listeners thought Kennedy “did the better job.” Twenty-three percent thought Nixon’s performance was better, and 29 percent said the candidates were about the same. Five percent offered no opinion.

But opinions about the debate did not translate into a decisive advantage for Kennedy. 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 modest change from Gallup’s poll taken just before the debate, which reported Nixon leading narrowly, by 47 percent to 46 percent.

But Gallup described the post-debate shift as too slight to be meaningful.

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


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HLN’s sneering swipe at the ‘now-infamous rescue of Jessica Lynch’

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths on September 16, 2012 at 10:45 am

The news channel HLN reached back nearly 10 years to take a sneering swipe the other day about the rescue of Jessica Lynch. It did so in a report about the four Americans slain in Libya last week in an attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi.

Among the victims was a security contractor and former Navy seal, Glen A. Doherty, who, HLN recalled, “was positioned as a sniper atop a nearby roof during the now-infamous rescue of Army Private Jessica Lynch” in Iraq in 2003.

How’s that? The “now-infamous rescue” of Jessica Lynch?

As often is the case with such gratuitous swipes, HLN (formerly known as CNN’s Headline News) didn’t explain the supposed infamy of the rescue — which was the first since World War II in which an American prisoner of war was rescued from behind enemy lines.

HLN presumably was alluding to the discredited claims, offered most prominently by the BBC, that the rescue was stagecraft — a show of force utterly unnecessary to retrieve Lynch, an Army private whose maintenance unit was caught in an ambush in March 2003, in the early days of the Iraq War.

Lynch was near death when a U.S. special operations team rescued her on April 1, 2003, from a hospital in Nasiriyah. She had suffered severe injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it attempted to flee the ambush and had been taken prisoner.

The BBC claimed in a report in May 2003 that the rescue of Lynch was “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived” — an event shamelessly staged for propaganda purposes.

As I point out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, “the BBC’s version ha[s] become an unshakeable, widely accepted element of the Lynch saga” — even though the Pentagon at the time dismissed the account as “void of all facts and absolutely ridiculous.”

And one has to look no further than the HLN’s sneering, passing reference to Doherty’s assignment in the Lynch case to recognize how thoroughly the fraudulent-rescue narrative has hardened into blithe acceptance.

In truth, the rescue of Jessica Lynch was no contrivance.

In 2007, the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, Thomas Gimble, reported to a House of Representatives oversight committee that no evidence had been uncovered to support the notion the rescue “was a staged media event.”

Instead, Gimble said, the rescue operation was found to have been “a valid mission” to recover an American prisoner of war “under combat conditions.”

More than 30 witnesses were interviewed in the inspector general’s inquiry, including members of the Special Operations rescue team, Gimble said in written testimony.

Few if any of those witnesses had been interviewed by news organizations, he noted.

In undertaking the Lynch rescue, Gimble said, the U.S. special forces team “fully expected to meet stiff resistance” and had come under enemy fire from the hospital building and areas nearby.

The special operations unit, comprised of Army Rangers and Navy Seals, extricated Lynch within minutes, and without injury.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong, Gimble’s report was “an unequivocal rebuke to the BBC’s account.” But by then the time Gimble appeared before the House oversight committee, nearly four years had passed and the BBC’s version had become solidified and widely embraced.

What’s more, I noted, Gimble’s report “did not fit what had become the dominant narrative about the rescue.

“It made little news.”


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‘Cronkite Moment’ morphing ‘into a general civic belief’? Why should it?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews, Television on September 9, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Robert MacNeil writes in today’s Washington Post that the presumptive power and influence of  Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchorman, “has morphed into a general civic belief.”

Let’s hope not.

Let’s hope the opposite effect is becoming more pronounced — that Cronkite’s presumed influence is slowly being recognized for the myth that it is.

MacNeil, the former co-anchor of the PBS News Hour program, takes up the notion of Cronkite’s power to move national events in a review of the Cronkite biography that came out at the end of May.

The biography, written by Douglas Brinkley and titled Cronkite, appeared for a short time on the New York Times list of non-fiction best-sellers.  I found the book hagiographic, especially its treatment of the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of late February 1968.

That was when Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and suggested that negotiations might lead to a way out.

But as I pointed out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, Cronkite’s “stalemate” characterization was hardly novel and exerted little demonstrable effect on the policy or decisions of the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The myth also has it that Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary prompted Johnson not to seek reelection in 1968.

MacNeil in his review notes the doubts about whether Cronkite’s assessment exerted much influence on Johnson but asserts nonetheless the “idea [that it did] has morphed into a general civic belief.”

It’s regrettable that MacNeil didn’t pause to consider the implications of the morphing, or reflect on why the myth of the “Cronkite Moment” is so appealing and so eagerly retold, despite the considerable evidence that can be arrayed in debunking it.

Cronkite himself (until late in his life) rejected the notion that his “mired in stalemate” assessment was all that influential, likening the effect to that merely of a “straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

Indeed, other news organizations in February 1968 were offering assessments far more pointed that Cronkite’s. For example, the Wall Street Journal said a few days before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” commentary that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed.”

National political figures likewise were expressing downbeat opinions about the war that month. George Romney, then a long-shot Republican candidate for president, declared in mid-February 1968:

“We haven’t been told the truth about Vietnam. They’re winning; we’re not winning: we’re losing, thus far.”

Such observations obviously were more emphatic than Cronkite’s tentative “mired in stalemate” assessment.

And yet, MacNeil in his review favorably notes a passage from Cronkite, that “America asked for truth about Vietnam, and Cronkite dutifully delivered.”

Americans in February 1968 had many sources other than Cronkite for analysis about Vietnam — analysis that was far sharper and far less equivocal.


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Recalling George Romney’s ‘brainwashing’ — and Gene McCarthy’s ‘light rinse’ retort

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes on September 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm

It’s been 45 years since George Romney committed one of the greatest gaffes in American political history — a misstep that supposedly inspired one of the most devastating putdowns in American political history.

Interestingly, though, crucial details about the devastating putdown remain rather murky.

Romney’s gaffe, which effectively destroyed his run for the presidency before it officially began, came in an interview taped on August 31, 1967, and aired September 4, 1967, on a Detroit television station.

In the interview, Romney, then governor of Michigan and a presumptive Republican candidate for president, referred to his visit to South Vietnam in 1965 and declared:

“You know, when I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody could get. … Well, not only by the generals but by the diplomatic corps over there. They do a very thorough job.”

The assertion that he had been duped into supporting America’s war effort in Vietnam revealed Romney’s muddled thinking and an uncertain command of foreign policy. (“Could the country afford a President who was so easily deceived?” the New York Times wondered.)

Forty-five years on, Romney’s comment remains striking both for clumsiness and self-destructiveness. And it’s been recalled not infrequently in recent months as Romney’s son, Mitt, has campaigned for the presidency.

When it is recalled, the “brainwashing” gaffe often is coupled with the stiletto-like rejoinder attributed to Eugene McCarthy, then a second-term U.S. senator from Minnesota.

McCarthy supposedly said that rather than brainwashing, “a light rinse” would have sufficed in Romney’s case.

There is no question about Romney’s having made the “brainwashing” claim; this YouTube video cuts to the money quote:

The anecdote’s memorable quality lies not only in Romney’s befuddled claim but also in McCarthy’s “light rinse” quip. Indeed, McCarthy’s retort is said to have been so powerful that it “essentially finished Romney.”

But the precise context of McCarthy’s “light rinse” zinger is at best unclear. My research has turned up no unambiguous documentation about when McCarthy made the comment, where, and specifically to whom.

(And why does this matter? Getting it right matters a lot, especially about an insult so piercing and effective that it lives on like few others in American political lore.)

A database search of leading U.S. newspapers — including the New York Times, the Washington PostChicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Baltimore Sun — turned up no published reference to McCarthy’s “light rinse” remark in 1967 or 1968, or for many years afterward.

The nearest contemporaneous hint to a “light rinse” came in a commentary published in mid-September 1967 in the Los Angeles Times, in which conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick said of Romney:

“Brainwashed, was he? It couldn’t have been much of a laundry bill.”

Kilpatrick’s column did not mention McCarthy, who wasn’t prominently in the news in September 1967. McCarthy did not announce his candidacy for president until November that year.

The first reference found in the database search to the “light rinse” comment  was in a commentary written by Fred Barnes and published in Baltimore Sun in April 1983. Barnes’ commentary, however, did not say when, where, or to whom McCarthy uttered the “light rinse” line.

The “light rinse” anecdote notably has been afflicted with version variability — my term for the shifting of important details as a story is retold over the years. As I point out in my 2010 book,  Getting It Wrong, version variability can be a marker of a media-driven myth.

Here are a few examples of the shifting versions of the “light rinse” remark:

  • Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, writing in her column in January 2012, quoted McCarthy as having said: “All that was needed in the case of George Romney was a light rinse.”
  • Syndicated columnist Jules Witcover wrote in 2007 that McCarthy “quipped that he ‘would have thought a light rinse would have done it.'”
  • Mark Shields, writing in the Washington Post in 1988, quoted McCarthy’s one-liner this way: “I don’t know why Romney was brainwashed; in his case, a light rinse would have been sufficient.”

And as further evidence of version variability, the “light rinse” quip has even been attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Such imprecision invites suspicion about the “light rinse” quip. (It also sounds almost too perfect to be true — not unlike, say, William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain or Lyndon B. Johnson’s supposed epiphany on the Vietnam War: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”)

Among the first accounts  — if not the first account — of McCarthy’s quip appeared in An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968, a hefty book published in 1969.

American Melodrama, which was written by Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page, described McCarthy’s remark as off-handed and said his aides persuaded journalists to hush it up.

According to American Melodrama, McCarthy was asked “by reporters whether he thought Romney’s ‘brainwashed’ gaffe had dealt the death blow to his chances.”

McCarthy was quoted as saying in reply:

“Well . . . er no, not really. Anyway, I think in that case a light rinse would have been sufficient.”

The book further stated:

“McCarthy’s press aides, appalled at the possible effects of this remark on Republicans, who, bereft of a dove candidate in their own party, might write-in McCarthy’s name, pleaded with reporters not to use it. They dutifully complied; though few would have done the same for Romney.”

While intriguing, American Melodrama doesn’t say when McCarthy made the comment, where, or specifically to whom.

Although self-censorship could account for the absence of contemporaneous references to McCarthy’s quip in leading U.S. newspapers, it seems implausible that an insult so delicious and devastating would have remained hushed up, even by compliant reporters, for very long.

Another version was offered by British journalist David Frost in an interview the aired on C-SPAN in 2007. Frost recalled having heard McCarthy’s comment, and said it was made in New Hampshire not long after Romney’s “brainwashing” statement.

But Frost’s recollection is faulty in a crucial respect: He said in the interview that “within a week or so” after making the “brainwashing” comment, Romney “was out of the race.”

Not so. Romney’s ended his campaign for the presidency on February 28, 1968 — six months after uttering the “brainwashing” remark and 3½ months after officially entering the race.

During the week Romney dropped out, Frost said in the C-SPAN interview, “I was interviewing Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, and, as we came out, there were three or four people who … wanted a sound bite. And one of them said, ‘What do you think about George Romney being brainwashed?’

“And McCarthy said, ‘I would have thought a light rinse would have been sufficient.’ Killer line. Fantastic line, I thought.”

But left unclear in Frost’s version is why journalists would have been asking McCarthy in late February or early March 1968 about a claim that Romney had made months before. Why would it have been newsworthy then?


Not only that, but Frost did not say whether, or when, he reported McCarthy’s “killer line.” Or whether McCarthy’s “press aides” pleaded with him not to use it.


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