Media & Debates

Past Practices

related video
Mark Gearan on the media's historical role.
Jack Corrigan on the media before television.
Michael Dukakis on the media and campaigns.

Conventions in the 19th and early 20th centuries could last for weeks.  Party elites led them, largely in private. The only information journalists gathered came from delegates and party leaders.  Before television, Americans learned about conventions from radio and newspaper coverage.

Networks began covering party conventions in 1940, but television coverage was not the dominant media source until the 1960s. In 1960, television helped John F. Kennedy secure the Democratic Party nomination and presidency in the first televised debate against Richard Nixon. Congress had suspended Section 315 of the Federal Communications Act (which would have required equal air time to the dozen candidates) to make the debates possible. It was produced in Chicago for CBS, and was the first ever face-to-face encounter between two presidential candidates. Nixon had served as vice president for 8 years, and was much better known than Kennedy. However, Kennedy’s dynamic performance and youthful good looks overshadowed a gaunt Nixon in the debate and launched his presidential prospects.

Televised debates halted in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.  They did not reappear until 1976, when President Gerald Ford debated Governor Jimmy Carter. Lyndon Baines Johnson did not enjoy debating, and Richard Nixon avoided them after his negative experience in 1960.
Televised debates resumed in 1976. They are notable because of a remark by Ford that was the press played up as a major mistake: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” This was one of the most famous gaffes of all time. In 1984, the debates featured a moderator and three panelists who asked both candidates the same questions. The Reagan and Mondale campaigns vetoed nearly a hundred proposed panelists for the first debate, which led the League of Women Voters, the nonpartisan organization that organized the debates between 1976 and 1984, to raise such a fuss that neither candidate rejected a single panelist in the second debate. The Democratic and Republican parties subsequently signed a secret petition that outlined everything from selection of the panelists, to the makeup of the audience, height of podiums, temperature, to banning follow-up questions. This document caused the League of Women Voters to withdraw as sponsor. The Commission on Presidential Debates then replaced the League in this role in 1988.

Americans didn’t just use television to vet candidates from their living rooms; they also learned about the 1968 Democratic Convention riots primarily through television.  After 1968, the only way to win the party’s presidential nomination was for a candidate to go through the primary election process. This lengthy new process made national nominating conventions into grand events, and the media changed to reflect this. The party’s weakened role marked the beginning of the current ceremonial era of conventions. The media now functions to both publicize and critique the nominees and party platforms.

Media influence can either help or hurt a candidate. Jimmy Carter’s run for president in 1976 exemplified the new power of the media.  Though Carter was a little-known Democratic candidate from Georgia, his campaign benefited greatly from positive print and television coverage.  In 2000, John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” endeared him to members of the media and general public.

In contrast, the media ridiculed Howard Dean whose 2004 scream in a fit of excitement after finishing third in the Iowa primary was recorded on video. Widely circulated in the media and replayed on television 633 times over the next four days, this outburst was used by Dean’s opponents as an argument that he lacked the proper temperament to serve as president. In 2012, Mother Jones published a leaked recording of Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser.  Romney said that “47% of people who are dependent upon government…..these are people who pay no income tax” reinforced the notion that he only cared about the rich.  Both incidents capture the important power of media images to sway presidential elections.

The Museum of Broadcast Communication > The History of Televised Presidential Debates