W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Kennedy’

‘Strategy for peace’ and blocking the schoolhouse door: Recalling a crowded week in June 1963

In Anniversaries, Newspapers, Photographs, Quotes, Television, Year studies on June 6, 2013 at 5:56 am

Monday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s “strategy for peace” commencement address at American University, a speech delivered at the height of the Cold War in which he called for a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.

JFK_AU_speech

Kennedy, June 10, 1963

The speech often is ranked among the finest of its kind.

Speaking to about 10,000 people out-of-doors on a 90-degree day in Washington, D.C., Kennedy announced that talks would soon begin in Moscow on a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. He also said the United States would suspend atmospheric testing as long as other nuclear powers did the same.

Fifty years on, the speech is still recalled for such passages as: “[W]e must labor on— not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace.”

And:

“Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.”

Those sentiments represented something of a modest departure from the rhetoric common at the time. Kennedy spoke at American University less than eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear exchange.

The speech was not without significance: The talks Kennedy announced on June 10, 1963, led fairly quickly to a limited test-ban treaty with the Soviets and British.

Interestingly, Kennedy’s address was in short order crowded off the front pages. His “strategy for peace” remarks hardly dominated the news that week.

Indeed, few weeks arguably have been as packed with such a variety of major and memorable news events as June 9-15, 1963.

Kennedy’s commencement speech received prominent treatment for a day or two in U.S. newspapers. Then it was overtaken by some of the most dramatic moments of the Civil Rights era — among them, Governor George Wallace’s stand at the schoolhouse door, symbolically blocking the desegregation of the University of Alabama.

It has been said that the “drama of the nation’s division over desegregation came sharply into focus” that day, June 11, 1963.

In the face of the governor’s defiance, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard. After reading a bitter statement denouncing the “unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama,” Wallace stepped aside. Two black students were allowed to register for classes.

NYT-front_11June1963_full

New York Times front, June 11, 1963

Kennedy referred to the confrontation in Alabama in a radio and television speech that night in which he proposed that Congress pass civil rights legislation to end discrimination in voting, enhance educational opportunities, and ensure access to restaurants, hotels, and other public places.

The resulting legislation became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Also on June 11, 1963,  an Associated Press correspondent in South Vietnam, Malcolm Browne, took one of the iconic images of the long war in Southeast Asia — that of a Buddhist monk who had set himself afire in downtown Saigon, to protest the government’s religious oppression.

“It was clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end,” Browne later said. “At the same time, there was a human element to it that was just horrifying, because the sequence of pictures showed the initial shock of the flames touching his face, and so forth. He never cried out or screamed ….”

The following day, Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his home in Mississippi. Byron De La Beckwith was tried three times for Evers’ killing, most recently in 1994 when he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The other two trials ended in hung juries.

Evers, an Army veteran who had fought in World War II, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The space race, as it was known, seldom was far from the news in 1963. At the close of the crowded week, the Soviets were preparing to launch Vostok 6. On board was Valentina Tereshkova, destined to become the first woman in space.

The flight lifted off on June 16, 1963, and lasted nearly 71 hours. Tereshkova’s 49 Earth orbits more than doubled the most compiled to that point by any American astronaut.

And 20 years would pass before the first American woman flew in space. She was Sally Ride, a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

The crowded week 50 years ago was a microcosm of the Cold War era, what with nuclear arms, civil rights, Southeast Asia, and the U.S.-Soviet space race all prominently in the news.

Even so, why does it much matter to look back on that week in June?

Doing so offer some useful and interesting perspective, given that we tend to think we live in such busy and momentous times.

Taking a look back also reveals how unsettled the country seemed to be in 1963, given the violence and the confrontations in the South, the Cold War rivalry with the Soviets, the strife in Vietnam.

So looking back to the crowded week in June tells us the 1960s were churning well before the climatic and tumultuous year of 1968.

One wouldn’t immediately have recognized this in mid-June 1963, but dominance was shifting in the news media, flowing from newspapers  to television.

Confirmation of this transition came in late November 1963 with wall-to-wall television coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. “Even television’s critics had to admit that the medium had been transformed into an even more powerful force,” media historian David Davies wrote in a book of the postwar decline of American newspapers.

Nineteen sixty-three was pivotal for the news media.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2012

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times, New Yorker, Photographs, Television, Washington Post on December 30, 2012 at 6:25 am

Media Myth Alert reported in 2012 on the appearance of many prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the year’s five top writeups, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.

Calling out the New York Times on ‘napalm girl’ photo error (posted June 3): The 40th anniversary of the famous “napalm girl” photograph — one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War — fell in early June.

NapalmGirl photo_AP

Nick Ut/Associated Press

In an obituary a few weeks before, the New York Times had referred to the photograph of terror-stricken Vietnamese children and claimed, erroneously, that it showed “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes.”

That passage suggested U.S. forces were responsible for the aerial napalm attack that gave rise to the photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press. I pointed this out in an email to the Times, noting that the bombing was a misdirected attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time had made clear.

The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied, and offered some baffling logic in doing so:

“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”

As if the aircraft’s manufacturer was at all relevant in the attack.

Independent of my efforts, two former Associated Press journalists also called on the Times to correct its error about “American planes.”

The Times resisted doing so until late August, when it issued a sort-of correction that embraced Keepnews’ tortured reasoning and stated:

“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”

It was, I noted, a begrudging and less-than-forthright acknowledgement of error. It hardly was in keeping with the declaration by the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller. He asserted in a column in 2011 that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”

hagiographic treatment of the “Cronkite Moment” (posted May 31): Few media-driven myths are as tenacious and desperately held as the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on air that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

For years, journalists have sought to attach great significance to Cronkite’s assessment, even though it was thoroughly unoriginal and was, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, of little demonstrable impact. Even Cronkite, until late in his life, pooh-poohed its importance.

But all that scarcely deterred Douglas Brinkley from presenting in a hefty biography about Cronkite a decidedly hagiographic — and misleading — interpretation of the “Cronkite Moment.”

Brinkley offered little persuasive evidence in asserting that the “aftershock” of Cronkite’s report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968, “was seismic” and “signaled a major shift in the public’s view of the war.”

In discussing the supposed “seismic” effects of Cronkite’s assessment, Brinkley wrote:

“Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page said, ‘The whole Vietnam effort may be doomed.’”

But the Journal editorial that  said so was published four days before Cronkite’s broadcast. To cite the editorial as evidence of a “seismic” effect of the “Cronkite Moment” was certainly misleading.

What’s more, Cronkite’s characterization of stalemate in Vietnam hardly “signaled a major shift in the public’s view of the war.”  Public opinion polls indicated that the shift had begun several months earlier.

If anything, Cronkite followed rather than led public opinion on Vietnam.

Uneven availability of WaPo’s online content about Jessica Lynch (posted April 27): On April 4, 2003, the Washington Post published a front-page report about an Iraqi lawyer who helped set in motion the rescue from captivity of Jessica Lynch, a wounded, 19-year-old Army private.

That report ran to 1,500 words and is freely available at the Post’s online site.

The day before that article appeared, the Post published an electrifying but far more problematic story about Jessica Lynch — an account that claimed she had fought fiercely against Iraqi attackers and had suffered gunshot and stab wounds before running out of ammunition and being taken prisoner.

Lynch_headline_Post

That article was published on the Post’s front page beneath the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

It was a stunning report that proved wrong in all important details: Lynch was neither shot nor stabbed; she did not fire a shot in the attack in Iraq. She was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee in attempting to flee.

But try finding the “fighting to the death” story at the Post’s online site.

Unlike the far less embarrassing report of April 4, 2003, the “fighting to the death” story is not freely available online. Clicking on the story’s URL opens what essentially is an empty link.

Also unavailable online are the scathing reviews of the hero-warrior tale published by the newspaper’s then-ombudsman in April and June 2003.

Such inconsistencies suggest a digital scrubbing of embarrassing content. I asked the newspaper’s incumbent ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, about this matter.

He took several weeks to reply, finally stating in an email in August that he had found “nothing nefarious about this.” He added that the Post since 2003 “has gone through several changes of content management systems,” by which articles are posted online.

He further noted that the “fighting to the death” story about Lynch and related content are available in the Post’s fee-based archive.

So why not make the “fighting to the death” story freely available? Why not remove the fee to access a singularly memorable article about the Iraq War, a mistaken report that made Jessica Lynch something of a celebrity and gave rise to misguided suspicions that the U.S. military concocted the hero-warrior tale and somehow fed it to the Post?

“Restoring the digital version of the article of April 3, 2003, would represent a contribution to the record about the case of Jessica Lynch, which the Post is solely responsible for having placed in the public domain,” I wrote in an email to Pexton in mid-August.

He has not replied.

Kennedy-Nixon debate myth lives on (posted September 30): The run-up to the televised presidential campaign debates in October prompted numerous references to the purported lesson of the first such encounter, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in late September 1960.

That lesson is about the presumptive power of the televised image: Supposedly, television viewers thought Kennedy won the first debate in 1960 while radio listeners felt Nixon got the better of it.

This notion of viewer-listener disagreement has become an enduring media myth, even though it was thoroughly dismantled 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Dismantling, though, hasn’t destroyed the myth. The notion of viewer-listener disagreement remains hardy and irresistible.

For example, in the runup to the debates in October between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, the founder of USA Today, Al Neuharth, wrote a column that recalled the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.

“Listeners,” Neuharth said, “generally gave Nixon the nod. But TV viewers strongly favored Kennedy.”

And the Chicago Tribune declared that “not everyone thought Kennedy had won the debate. Pollsters found that those who heard the radio broadcast thought Nixon won. … Television viewers experienced a different debate from radio listeners.”

Only one polling organization, Sindlinger & Company, had conducted a survey of any size that included a sub-sample of radio listeners. The Sindlinger survey, taken the day after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, indicated that radio listeners felt Nixon prevailed, by a margin of 2-to-1.

But Vancil and Pendell, in their article in Central States Speech Journal in 1987, noted that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents, of whom just 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 only 178 of the 282 respondents “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” Vancil and Pendell wrote.

Given the shortcomings of the unrepresentative Sindlinger sample, Nixon’s supposedly decisive margin among radio listeners dissolves as meaningless — and renders viewer-listener disagreement a media myth.

George Romney’s “brainwashing” — and Gene McCarthy’s retort (posted September 4): Mitt Romney’s ill-fated run for the presidency prompted reminders of his father’s failed presidential campaign in 1968 — a campaign done in by a memorably clumsy gaffe.

The gaffe, in turn, is said to have inspired one of the most devastating putdowns in American political history. But as my research has found, the context of the supposed putdown is unclear at best.

The gaffe was committed in late August 1967 by George Romney, then governor of Michigan and a presumptive leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968.

In an interview with a Detroit television reporter, Romney referred to his visit to South Vietnam in 1965 and said:

“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.”

Romney’s claim that he had been duped into supporting America’s war effort in Vietnam suggested muddled thinking, gullibility, and an uncertain command of foreign policy. His abbreviated presidential campaign never recovered from the self-inflicted wound; he ended his  run for the presidency at the end of February 1968.

Sealing the gaffe’s unforgettable quality was the supposed witty putdown by Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy. Rather than a “brainwashing,” McCarthy supposedly said, a “light rinse” would have sufficed for Romney.

So telling was McCarthy’s “light rinse” quip that it “essentially finished Romney.”

But when, or even whether, McCarthy made the “light rinse” comment is unclear.

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 the “light rinse” quip in 1967 or 1968. Or for years afterward.

The first reference was in 1983, a column in the Baltimore Sun that did not say when, where, or to whom McCarthy uttered the remark.

It seems improbable that journalists in 1967 or 1968 would have failed to report a retort as delicious as McCarthy’s.

But that’s what An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968, a hefty book published in 1969 would have us believe.

American Melodrama described McCarthy’s remark as off-handed and said the senator’s aides persuaded reporters to hush it up.

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

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Other memorable posts of 2012:

Debates are over, media myth lives on

In Debunking, Media myths on October 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm

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.

Debates are over, myth lives on

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.

Nixon said:

“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.

This was suggested in a lengthy commentary about the Obama-Romney debates, posted the other day at the online site of the liberal American Prospect political magazine.

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.

WJC

Recent and related:

‘We’re trying to toughen you up’: Never happened with Obama and news media

In Debunking, Media myths on October 7, 2012 at 8:39 am

“We’re trying to toughen you up.”

Remember that?

It was nearly six years ago when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd made the comment to then-Senator Barack Obama, as his campaign for the presidency was unfolding.

Obama at the debate

Her remark was in reply to Obama’s criticism — uttered perhaps half in jest — about Dowd’s having mentioned his prominent ears. (She wrote in a column in October 2006: “He’s intriguingly imperfect: His ears stick out, he smokes, and he’s written about wrestling with pot, booze and ‘maybe a little blow’ as a young man.”)

“You talked about my ears,” Obama told her later, “and I just want to put you on notice: I’m very sensitive about — what I told them was I was teased relentlessly when I was a kid about my big ears.”

Dowd said in response:

“We’re trying to toughen you up.”

Of course, “toughen up” never happened. The mainstream U.S. news media rarely have treated Obama with anything but swooning deference. He and his policies seldom have been exposed to rigorous and critical assessment. Not in any sustained way, and certainly not during the 2012 election season.

As Andrew Klavan wrote recently in City Journal: “No other president could have … presided over such a crippled economy and such universal failures at war and in foreign policy and escaped almost without mainstream blame.”

The upshot of media deference was on vivid display Wednesday night, when Obama’s economic record was eviscerated by Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a debate stunning for its lopsidedness.

Not even Richard Nixon lost so utterly in 1960 in his debates with John F. Kennedy.

For the first time in his presidency, Obama was called to account publicly and prominently for the economic failings of his administration. And he had nothing in rebuttal: Romney’s unrelenting pressure left Obama looking flustered, hapless.

Since then, the mainstream news media have been inclined to blame Obama’s performance on Romney’s having told nothing but lies, on the clumsy moderation of Jim Lehrer of PBS, and (in Al Gore’s telling) on the altitude in Denver, the debate’s host city.

Even now, the mainstream news media are little inclined to “toughen up” Obama, even with two debates ahead and his presidency very much in the balance.

An inevitable reason for all this can be traced to the dearth of intellectual diversity at leading U.S. news organizations. The ideological imbalance in newsrooms is hardly a secret: News organizations themselves have called attention to this defect from time to time.

For example, the then-ombudsman for the Washington Post, Deborah Howell, wrote in a post-election column in November 2008:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Howell’s column quoted Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as saying:

“The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It’s not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives.

“It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

More recently, in his farewell column in August, Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor (or ombudsman), chided the newspaper’s “political and cultural progressivism” which, he said, “virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

“As a result,” Brisbane declared, “developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”

Rather than treat the “overloved and undermanaged” critique as a matter of serious consideration, the Times’ executive editor, Jill Abramson, rejected it out of hand, dismissing it as obviously erroneous.

Brisbane’s observations, the product of two years as the newspaper’s ombudsman, deserved a reception far more thoughtful and serious-minded than that. Especially given the newspaper’s mostly forgotten internal report in 2005 which said in part:

“Both inside and outside the paper, some people feel we are missing stories because the staff lacks diversity in viewpoints, intellectual grounding and individual backgrounds. We should look for all manner of diversity. We should seek talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faith.” (Emphasis added.)

The critique of the news media’s ideological imbalance is more than impressionistic, more than “perception”: A survey in 2008 of journalists for national news publications reported that 8 percent identified themselves as “conservative,” 32 percent as “liberal,” and 53 percent as “moderate.”

Such imbalance has given rise to the occasional vague promise to promote intellectual diversity in the newsroom.

But nothing much changes.  As I pointed out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, “Viewpoint diversity is an issue not much discussed” in American newsrooms — “places that sometimes seem to be bastions of group-think.”

In that regard, I quoted Michael Kelly, former editor of National Journal, who once observed:

“Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think.”

Obama has thrived for years within the reassuring confines of the media cocoon which, when ripped away as it was Wednesday night, makes for dramatic theater. But it does little for the news media and their sagging credibility.

WJC

Recent or related:

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

Recent or related:

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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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.

WJC

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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.”

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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