W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘1960 debate’

No, ‘Politico’ — Viewer-listener disagreement is a myth of JFK-Nixon debate

In Anniversaries, Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on September 26, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Fifty-seven years ago tonight, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon met in the first-ever televised debate between major party presidential candidates.

Not everyone thought he looked awful: Nixon debating, 1960
(AP photo)

Soon enough, a hardy media myth grew up around the 1960 debate: It’s a robust trope that says radio listeners thought Nixon won while television viewers favored Kennedy.

Politico is the latest media outlet to give expression to the myth (or at least to its juiciest half).

An essay posted today declares that “most people who heard the debate on the radio, which focused on domestic issues, thought Nixon had won. But Nixon’s sickly image counted for more; most viewers focused on what they saw and not on what they heard.”

What’s remarkable about this hoary media myth is that it persists despite its thorough dismantling 30 years ago by David Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

They noted in a journal article that evidence for viewer-listener disagreement is thin, flawed, and anecdotal. Moreover, no public opinion surveys conducted in the immediate aftermath of the debate were aimed specifically at gauging reactions radio audiences.

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Media myths: Prominent cases of ‘fake news’ masquerading as fact

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs, Scandal, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 14, 2016 at 7:46 pm

The mainstream media’s recent panic about a surge of “fake news” has tended to ignore a critical element: The media themselves often have been purveyors of bogus stories.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm“Fake news” has plenty of antecedents in mainstream media — several cases of which are examined in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a new, expanded edition of which was published recently by University of California Press.

The book addresses and debunks media-driven myths, which are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as false or wildly exaggerated.

Media myths can be thought of as prominent cases of “fake news” or shoddy interpretation that have masqueraded as fact for years. Or decades.

Take, for example, the often-told tale that television viewers and radio listeners had sharply different impressions about who won the first-ever televised debate in September 1960 between major party candidates. The media myth is that John F. Kennedy looked so cool and collected that TV audiences gave him the nod, but that Richard Nixon was the winner among radio listeners.

The tale of viewer-listener disagreement has circulated for years and is dismantled in one of three new chapters in the second edition of Getting It Wrong. “Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation,” I write, “it is a robust trope that emerged within months of the first of four Kennedy-Nixon debates [in 1960] and is often invoked decades later as conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

Viewer-listener disagreement is a dubious bit of political lore that’s frequently cited by mainstream media, especially in the runup to  national elections. As with many media myths, I point out in the book, “the notion of viewer-listener disagreement rests more on assertion than persuasive evidence.”

What little polling data exist about the debate’s radio listeners are simply too sparse, too unstable, and too imprecise to support any broad conclusions about their views of the debate winner.

Moreover, the extensive debate coverage in major U.S. newspapers lends no support to the claim of viewer-listener disagreement, either.

Had dramatic and widespread differences characterized the reactions of TV and radio audiences, journalists in 1960 were well-positioned to detect and report about such clashing perceptions — especially in the days immediately after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter when curiosity about the debate, its novelty, and its impact ran high.

But none of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in researching the chapter about the debate made specific reference to the presumptive phenomenon of listener-viewer disagreement: Leading American newspapers contained nothing in the debate’s immediate aftermath that suggested pervasive differences in how televisions viewers and radio listeners reacted to the landmark debate, I note.

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement appears to have originated in a passage in The Making of the President, 1960, an award-winning book about the campaign written by journalist Theodore White.

Getting It Wrong punctures other fake tales, including:

  • The purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain, supposedly contained in a telegraphic exchange with Frederic Remington, an artist on assignment in Cuba in 1897 for Hearst’s New York Journal. The war-mongering vow is well-known in American journalism, but is supported by no compelling evidence or documentation. The telegrams have never turned up and Hearst denied sending such a message. But because it supposedly captures Hearst’s duplicitous ways so well, the “furnish the war” anecdote lives on, despite having been thoroughly debunked.
  • The radio adaptation in October 1938 of The War of The Worlds was supposedly so dramatic and sounded so convincing that tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets in panic and mass hysteria, believing that Earth was under an invasion from Mars. But evidence is scant at best that the radio program caused such powerful effects. If panic had spread across America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries. But nothing of the sort was linked to the show.
    This tale, too, lives on, resistant to debunking.
  • The supposed battlefield heroics of PFC Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk who, the Washington Post said, fought Lynch_headline_Postfiercely in the ambush of her unit during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003. Lynch, the Post claimed, was shot and stabbed, but kept firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition and was taken prisoner. The Post’s electrifying, front-page story about Lynch’s derring-do carried the headline “‘She was fighting to the death'” and was picked up and amplified by news organizations around the world.
    But the story soon was found to be wrong in all important respects: Lynch never fired a shot during the ambush (her weapon had jammed) and she was neither shot nor stabbed. The heroics attributed to her were an apparent case of mistaken identity that likely stemmed from a translation error. The Post, however, never has adequately explained how it got it so badly wrong about Jessica Lynch. Or who its sources were.

The Post figures in an even more prominent media myth — namely that the reporting of two of its reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovered the Watergate scandal and exposed the wrongdoing that brought down Nixon’s presidency in 1974. This simplistic, easy-to-remember yet misleading version of Watergate has become the scandal’s dominant narrative.

But clearly, that’s not how Watergate was uncovered. Unspooling the scandal was the work of subpoena-wielding agencies and actors, including federal special prosecutors, congressional committees, the FBI, and ultimately the Supreme Court.

Even then, Nixon probably would have survived the scandal if not for the secret audio tapes he had made of conversations at the White House. The tapes clearly revealed his guilty role in approving a cover-up of Watergate’s seminal crime — the burglary in June 1972 of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington.

But the media myth of Watergate — the spurious interpretation about how the scandal was exposed — lives on. And is not infrequently repeated by news organizations, including rivals of the Post.

The tale endures even though officials at the Post have periodically over the years pointedly rejected the notion. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, once said:

“Sometimes, people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Graham was right. But the constitutional-processes interpretation of Watergate is far less dramatic, and far more intricate, than the narrative about two ambitious journalists and their earnest reporting.

WJC

A version of this essay first appeared
at the University of California Press blog

More from Media Myth Alert:

Media myths of Watergate, ’60 debate circulate as campaign enters closing days

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Watergate myth on November 4, 2016 at 9:45 pm
'Nixon did in Nixon'

Nixon’s resignation: Not the media’s doing

Coinciding with the closing days of this year’s wretched election campaign has been the appearance of prominent media myths about the Watergate scandal and the first televised debate in 1960 between major party presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The myths, respectively, have it that the dogged reporting by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the crimes that brought down Nixon’s presidency in 1974, and that television viewers and radio listeners reached sharply different conclusions about the debate outcome, signaling that image trumps substance.

Both myths have become well-entrenched dominant narratives over the years and they tend to be blithely invoked by contemporary journalists.

Take, for example, the lead paragraph of an Atlantic article posted a couple of days ago; it flatly declared:

“The Watergate Scandal was a high point of American journalism. Two dedicated young reporters from The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down President Richard Nixon for his role in the coverup of the 1972 attempted break in of the Democratic Party headquarters by Republican operatives.”

In an otherwise thoughtful analysis posted today about the new media’s failings in this year presidential campaign, David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun invoked the Watergate myth, stating:

“And how was Nixon forced to resign if not through the old-school, legacy standards of dogged investigative journalism?”

Zurawik referred to Bernstein as “[o]ne of the journalistic elders who brought Nixon down.”

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmAs I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — a second edition of which recently was published — the Washington Post was at best a marginal contributor to Nixon’s fall.

Unraveling a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions, I write in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972, the seminal crime of Watergate.

Most senior figures at the Post during the Watergate period — including Woodward, Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, and Publisher Katharine Graham — scoffed at claims the newspaper’s reporting toppled Nixon.

Woodward, for example, told American Journalism Review in 2004:

“To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

The myth about the 1960 debate was invoked almost casually in a column the other day in Raleigh’s News & Observer newspaper. The writer asserted:

“The televised debates were said to give the nod to the telegenic Kennedy, while radio listeners believed Nixon the victor.”

But as I point out in the new edition of Getting It Wrong, the notion of viewer-listener disagreement is “a dubious bit of political lore”  often cited as presumptive “evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement, I also point out, “was utterly demolished” nearly 30 years ago in a scholarly journal article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Vancil and Pendell, writing in Central States Speech Journal, reviewed and dissected the few published surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect in the Kennedy-Nixon debate of September 26, 1960.

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

Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents — just 282 of whom said they had listened on radio. Of that number, 178 (or fewer than four people per state) “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” they wrote. The sub-sample was decidedly too small few and unrepresentative to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.

Not only was it unrepresentative, the sub-sample failed to identify from where the radio listeners were drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell wrote, “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 other defects render the Sindlinger survey meaningless in offering insights to reactions of radio listeners.

In the second edition of Getting It Wrong, I seek to build upon the work of Vancil and Pendell, offering contemporaneous evidence from a detailed review of debate-related content in three dozen large-city U.S. daily newspapers. Examining the news reports and commentaries published in those newspapers in the debate’s immediate aftermath turned up no evidence to support the notion of viewer-listener disagreement, I write, adding:

“None of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries [examined] made specific reference” to the supposed phenomenon of viewer-listener disagreement. “Leading American newspapers in late September 1960 spoke of nothing that suggested or intimated pervasive differences in how television viewers and radio listeners reacted to the landmark debate.”

And they were well-positioned to have done so, given the keen interest in, and close reporting about, the first debate between major party candidates.

WJC

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Memorable late October: A new edition of ‘Getting It Wrong’ and more

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Photographs, Quotes, Television on October 30, 2016 at 5:59 pm

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmLate October makes for memorable times in media-mythbusting.

The anniversary of the mythical panic broadcast — Orson Welles’ clever radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds that supposedly touched off nationwide panic and mass hysteria in 1938 — falls this evening.

Today also marks the seventh anniversary of the launch of Media Myth Alert.

And late October this year brought the publication of an expanded second edition of Getting It Wrong, my award-winning mythbusting book, published by University of California Press.

The second edition includes a new preface, and three new chapters that discuss:

  • The myth of the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — notably that television viewers and radio listeners reached dramatically different conclusions about who won the encounter. In Getting It Wrong, I characterize the notion of viewer-listener disagreement as “a robust trope” that’s often cited as “conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.” I also present reasons why the debate of September 26, 1960, was at best a small factor in the outcome of the election, which Kennedy narrowly won.screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-5-01-49-pm
  • The myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in Vietnam in June 1972, which shows a cluster of children burned or terrorized by an errant napalm attack. I note the photograph has given rise to a variety of media myths — notably that American warplanes dropped the napalm. The attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force. Related myths are that the photograph was so powerful that it turned U.S. public opinion against the war, that it hastened an end to the war, and that it was published on newspaper front pages across the country. (Many leading U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph; many abstained.)
  • The spread of bogus quotations via social media and the Internet.  Among the examples discussed in the new edition is this phony quotation, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.” The utterance, I point out, is found in none of Jefferson’s writings. And there is no evidence the third U.S. president smoked hemp or other substances, including tobacco. Even so, the obviously preposterous quote — like many others attributed to important men and women of the past — “is too alluring and oddly amusing to drift away as so much historical rubbish,” I write.

The second edition of Getting It Wrong also explores the tenacity of prominent media myths, calling attention to the roles of celebrities and luminaries — authors, entertainers, and social critics, as well as politicians and talk show hosts — in amplifying dubious or apocryphal tales about the news media and their power.

The upshot of the celebrity effect, I write, is scarcely trivial: The prominence of luminaries helps ensure that the myths will reach wide audiences, making the myths all the more difficult to uproot. The importance of the celebrity effect in the diffusion of media myths has become better recognized, and better documented, in the years since publication in 2010 of the first edition of Getting It Wrong, I point out.

Myth-telling luminaries include Vice President Joe Biden, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, former President Jimmy Carter, humorist Garrison Keillor, and author and TV commentator Juan Williams.

I further note that for journalists, media myths “are very seductive: They place the news media at the epicenter of vital and decisive moments of the past, they tell of journalistic bravado and triumph, and they offer memorable if simplistic narratives that are central to journalism’s amour propre.

“They also encourage an assumption that, the disruption and retrenchment in their field notwithstanding, journalists can be moved to such heights again.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

 

Debate myth emerges anew; 2nd edition of ‘Getting It Wrong’ out soon

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio on September 24, 2016 at 9:20 am

The runup to Monday’s debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and her Republican foe, Donald Trump, has been accompanied by news accounts about the first debate 56 years ago between major party candidates — and more than a few references to a hoary and tenacious media-driven myth.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pmThe myth has it that television viewers and radio listeners disagreed sharply as to the winner of the debate in 1960 between Democrat John F. Kennedy and his Republican foe, Richard M. Nixon. TV viewers, it is said, thought Kennedy the winner while radio listeners gave their nod to Nixon.

I take up the myth of viewer-listener disagreement in one of three new chapters in the forthcoming second edition of Getting It Wrong: Debunking The Greatest Myths of American Journalism. Other new chapters discuss the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph and the reach and velocity of Internet-driven bogus quotations.

The second edition, to be published by University of California Press, is due out in about a month’s time.

In the book, I characterize viewer-listener disagreement as “a robust trope” that’s often cited as “conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

It is, I add, “described often and nonchalantly in books about American presidential politics, in news articles recalling the 1960 debate, and in commentaries ruminating about the legacies and lessons of the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter.”

In news articles, for sure.

Today’s “Saturday essay,” a prominent section front of the weekend Wall Street Journal, invoked the viewer-listener myth declaring, quite nonchalantly and without attribution:

“People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched on TV thought Kennedy won, and the election was so close that the TV factor might have made a difference.”

Today’s New York Daily News published a look-back at the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate that stated:

“Following the debate, most TV viewers believed that Kennedy had been the victor. Conversely though, radio listeners found that Nixon had a slight edge over Kennedy. And this, arguably, began the process of presidential candidates and their camps being completely obsessed with a perfect TV image.”

Similarly, an article posted the other day at the online site of Voice of America asserted:

“[W]hat the 1960 debates showed was how television was changing politics. In the first debate, radio listeners said Nixon won. Those who watched on television said Kennedy was the better debater.”

Pacific Standard magazine offered a waffling, diffident embrace of the myth, stating:

“According to conventional wisdom (which may or may not be true) the charismatic Kennedy was seen as the clear winner by those who watched the proceedings on television, while the call was far closer among those who heard it on the radio.”

In this case, “conventional wisdom” is a media myth: The notion of viewer-listener disagreement is, I write, “a dubious bit of political lore.”

I note in the new chapter that the myth of viewer-listener disagreement “was utterly demolished” nearly 30 years ago in a scholarly journal article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Writing in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell reviewed and dissected the few published surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect in the Kennedy-Nixon debate of September 26, 1960.

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

Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents — of whom only 282 said they had listened on radio. Of that number, 178 (or fewer than four people per state) “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” they wrote. The sub-sample was decidedly too small few and unrepresentative to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.

Not only was it unrepresentative, the sub-sample failed to identify from where the radio listeners were drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell wrote, “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 other defects render the Sindlinger survey meaningless in offering insights to reactions of radio listeners.

[CNN series invokes Kennedy-Nixon debate myth]

I seek in the second edition of Getting It Wrong to build upon the fine work of Vancil and Pendell and present contemporaneous evidence from a detailed review of debate-related content in three dozen large-city U.S. daily newspapers. Examining the news reports and commentaries of those newspapers turned up no evidence to support the notion of viewer-listener disagreement.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-7-56-07-am“Even the oblique hints of viewer-listener disagreement were vague and few,” I write, adding:

“The most proximate reference to the purported phenomenon appeared two days after the debate in a column by Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution. McGill wrote that he had arranged for ‘a number of persons [to] listen to the great debate on radio. It is interesting to report they unanimously thought Mr. Nixon had the better of it. They could not see him. They listened without the diversion of looks and the consequent straying of the mind to that subject.'”

While intriguing in its prescience, I point out that McGill’s experiment “was more speculative than revealing. His column did not report how many people he had recruited to listen to the debate on radio, nor did it describe their party affiliations or where they lived. It was not a representative sampling; obviously, it was not meant to be.”

Rather, I write, it was an opportunity “to ruminate about the novelty of television as an instrument of political campaigns.” McGill called the inaugural Kennedy-Nixon debate “a triumph for television,” which it was. But it produced no significant disconnect among television viewers and radio listeners.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

CNN launches ‘Race for White House’ series with hoary myth about 1960 debate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Television on March 7, 2016 at 12:01 pm

1960 myth ricochets around the media in advance of Obama-Romney debate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Television on October 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Kennedy, Nixon at their mythical debate

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.

For example, the latest Washington Examiner column of political commentator Michael Barone reads as if he had consulted recent posts at Media Myth Alert.

Barone wrote:

“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.

WJC

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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 ….”

WJC

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Appearance decisive in politics? Revisiting the Kennedy-Nixon debate

In Debunking, Media myths on June 23, 2011 at 4:04 am

First presidential debate, 1960

The power of the image in presidential politics was never better demonstrated than in September 1960.

That was when John F. Kennedy supposedly won the first-ever televised debate between U.S. presidential candidates because he appeared so poised, rested, and telegenic compared to his sweaty, haggard-looking rival, Richard M. Nixon.

Most television viewers thought so, supposedly.

But people who listened to the debate on radio had a distinctly different impression: They thought Nixon won the encounter.

So goes one of the most delicious, enduring, and often-repeated myths about the American media and politics, which was served up yesterday in a commentary posted online yesterday by Canadian-based Troy Media.

The commentary declared:

“The major story of the first televised presidential debate in 1960 became the photogenic appeal of John F. Kennedy versus the sickly look of his opponent, Richard Nixon. … Radio listeners, who heard the debate but hadn’t seen it, gave the victory to Nixon. But a large majority of television viewers recognized Kennedy as the winner.”

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement — that television viewers and radio listeners had starkly different impressions of the inaugural presidential debate — was destroyed (or ought to have been) in research published in 1987 by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

They noted that reports of viewer-listener disagreement were thin, flawed, and anecdotal, and the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect were too small and unrepresentative to allow for confident assessments.

Vancil and Pendell concluded:

“The relationship of substance and appearance is complex, and the effects of electronic media on political communication surely deserve attention. However, there is little merit in speculation based upon unsupported anecdotes of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.”

Vancil and Pendell’s research also challenged the notion that Nixon’s haggard look much contributed to views about the debate.

“Appearance problems, such as Nixon’s perspiring brow, could have had a negative impact on viewer perceptions,” they 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.”

It’s revealing to note that a good deal of post-debate commentary deemed the encounter a draw.

For example, James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote shortly after the debate: “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.”

But the Washington Post saw it another way, stating in a post-debate editorial:

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

Right after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter, the Associated Press conducted an unscientific survey of 100 Americans in 10 major U.S. cities and reported that most respondents said they weren’t influenced by the exchanges.

“Only a few persons,” the AP reported, “said they had actually switched from one candidate to the other because of the debate.”

And it was hardly the case that “a large majority of television viewers recognized Kennedy as the winner” of the debate, as the Troy Media commentary claimed.

A Gallup poll conducted during the week after the debate and released October 11, 1960, reported that 43 percent of voters thought Kennedy “did the better job” in the debate; 23 percent thought Nixon was better, and 29 percent said both candidates were about the same. Five percent offered no opinion.

The survey, moreover, detected no marked shift of support to Kennedy, post-debate. The survey reported Kennedy to be narrowly ahead, by 49 percent to 46 percent, with 5 percent undecided.

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

WJC

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On Gingrich, JFK, and the appearance factor in presidential debates

In Debunking, Media myths on June 13, 2011 at 11:19 am

First presidential debate, 1960

The first televised presidential debate set a standard for American politics.

A myth-encrusted standard.

John F. Kennedy supposedly won that debate in September 1960 because he looked so much more rested and telegenic than his rival, Richard M. Nixon. There is, however, scant evidence to support that notion, which was revived yesterday in a commentary at the Daily Caller blog.

The commentary suggested that Newt Gingrich’s beleaguered presidential campaign might find a spark during tonight’s debate in New Hampshire among seven Republicans seeking the presidency.

In 1960, the Daily Caller commentary stated, “then-Sen. John F. Kennedy reportedly spent the day of his big debate against Vice President Richard Nixon getting a sun tan and resting. Nixon, on the other hand, spent the day rigorously campaigning (he also didn’t wear makeup). It worked for Kennedy who, thanks to the advent of TV, ‘won’ the debate. A rested Gingrich might likewise perform well in Monday’s debate in New Hampshire.”

Gingrich’s hopes to win the presidency probably were destroyed with last week’s mass departure of top campaign staffers and advisers. But his long-shot candidacy is of scant interest to Media Myth Alert. Far more compelling is the Daily Caller’s claim about the presidential debate in September 1960.

It’s important to note that most commentary in the debate’s immediate aftermath called the Kennedy-Nixon encounter a draw.

For example, James Reston, then the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, wrote in a post-debate column: “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.”

The Washington Post, on the other hand, said in a post-debate editorial:

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

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch hedged in its assessment, declaring: “We should not say that anybody won. … They both looked pretty young to us.”

Immediately after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter, the Associated Press conducted an unscientific survey in 10 major U.S. cities and reported that most respondents said they hadn’t been influenced by the exchanges. “Only a few persons,” according to AP, “said they had actually switched from one candidate to the other because of the debate.”

In the months afterward, Nixon’s sweaty brow and haggard appearance during the debate emerged as factors supposedly decisive to the outcome of the encounter — and to the 1960 election. Such claims, however, rest on more on conjecture than compelling evidence.

David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell wrote in a revealing journal article published in 1987 that “the inference that appearance problems caused Nixon’s loss, or Kennedy’s victory [in the debate], is classic post hoc fallacy.

“Appearance problems, such as Nixon’s perspiring brow, could have had a negative impact on viewer perceptions, but it is also possible for viewers to be sympathetic to such problems, or to interpret them as evidence of attractive or desirable qualities.”

That is, Nixon’s sweating under hot television lights could have stirred viewers empathy, making them feel more kindly toward the Republican candidate. It’s a plausible supposition.

Vancil and Pendell also wrote:

“Even if viewers disliked Nixon’s physical appearance, the relative importance of this factor in viewers’ selection of a debate winner is a matter of conjecture.”

A Gallup poll conducted during the week following the debate and released October 11, 1960, reported that 43 percent of voters thought Kennedy “did the better job” in the debate, which was the first of four during the 1960 fall campaign. Twenty-three percent thought Nixon was better; 29 percent said both candidates were about the same. Five percent offered no opinion.

But the poll did not specifically address the appearance of either candidate; nor did the poll detect a sharp swing of support to Kennedy. The survey reported Kennedy to be narrowly ahead, by 49 percent to 46 percent, with 5 percent undecided.

That result represented a slight change from a Gallup survey taken just before the debate, which reported Nixon leading by 47 percent to 46 percent.

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

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

By the way, Kennedy didn’t take off the day of the debate to rest and work on his tan, as the Daily Caller commentary said. The Chicago Tribune reported that Kennedy received “a boisterous welcome” in an appearance that afternoon at a carpenters union convention in Chicago, the debate’s host city.

WJC

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