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.
“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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