The runup to the three presidential debates this month inevitably was accompanied by references to the 1960 encounter between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — and to references to the media myth distorts understanding of the historic confrontation 52 years ago.
Even days after the final debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the 1960 debate myth still swirls.
The myth has it that television viewers thought Kennedy won the first debate of that campaign while radio listeners believed Nixon prevailed.
It’s a dubious bit of political lore that long ago became a defining feature of that debate. And it lives on as a reminder about how appearances supposedly trump substance in American presidential politics.
The notion of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate is implausible for several reasons, including the absence of representative polling data that confirmed such a disparity.
What likely was more decisive than appearance in that debate was Nixon’s willingness to be conciliatory, to concur with Kennedy. In his opening statement, Nixon seemed to second the points raised by Kennedy, who had spoken first.
“The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with. … There is no question but that this nation cannot stand still; because we are in a deadly competition, a competition not only with the men in the Kremlin, but the men in Peking. We’re ahead in this competition, as Senator Kennedy, I think, has implied. But when you’re in a race, the only way to stay ahead is to move ahead. And I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight, the spirit that the United States should move ahead.”
But in discussing the debate more than 50 years later, it’s far easier to reach for the myth of viewer-listener disagreement than it is to recall Nixon’s ill-advised tactics.
The commentary invoked the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in stating:
“As for wishing these suckers were serious policy discussions, I can’t think of a single presidential debate that’s ever been decided on those grounds. Even in 1960, when the jousting between Kennedy and Nixon was relatively substantive, JFK triumphed purely on image, one proof being that people who only heard their confrontations on radio famously thought Nixon had cleaned his clock.”
The commentary offered no evidence to support the claim of clock-cleaning-on-the-radio.
That’s because there is no persuasive, contemporaneous evidence to that effect.
The notion of viewer-listener disagreement was demolished in a journal article published 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.
Their article, published in Central States Speech Journal, noted that accounts of viewer-listener disagreement about the Kennedy-Nixon debate invariably were anecdotal and impressionistic — and hardly representative of the American electorate in 1960.
The polling organization Sindlinger & Co. did report that its survey respondents who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, by a 2-to-1 margin.
But as Vancil and Pendell pointed out, Sindlinger’s sample of radio listeners included just 282 respondents — of whom 178 offered an opinion about the debate winner. The numbers were far too few to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions.
Like many media myths, the notion of listener-viewer disagreement is so delicious that it must have been true.
The New Republic hinted at such sentiment on Monday, the day of the final Obama-Romney debate, in an essay that stated: “[P]erhaps it’s safe to say that 1960 was the year we learned that looks and demeanor, as seen on TV, were just as important as speech when it came to winning over voters.”
In making the claim, the New Republic essay cited an intriguing experiment, reported in 2003, in which 171 summer students at the University of Minnesota either viewed a video of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate or listened to an audio recording of the encounter.
None of the participants had prior knowledge about the Kennedy-Nixon debate, according to the researcher, James Druckman.
He reported finding that television viewers in his experiment “were significantly more likely to believe Kennedy won the debate than audio listeners.”
This, he declared, represented “the first clear empirical evidence consistent with the widespread assertion of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.”
But in a footnote, Druckman reported that 81 percent of the viewers in his experiment thought Kennedy won; so did 60 percent of listeners.
That finding is inconsistent with the central element of alleged viewer-listener disagreement — that Kennedy won among television viewers while Nixon won among radio listeners.
What’s more, participants in Druckman’s experiment skewed Democratic: The “sample did underrepresent Republicans,” he wrote in another footnote. As such, participants may have been more readily sympathetic to Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, than to Nixon, the Republican.
Druckman also acknowledged that “younger people” in the early 21st century may have processed “televised information differently” from viewers in 1960. To be sure, applying the experiment’s results to viewers and listeners of the presidential debate in 1960 is impossible.
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