Socolow podcast: The History of Televised Presidential Debates

podcastlogoFor the 31th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Teri Finneman spoke with Michael Socolow about the history of televised presidential debates.

Michael Socolow is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Maine and a recent Visiting Fulbright Research Scholar at the News & Media Research Centre, University of Canberra (Australia). He is the 2018 winner of the Broadcast Historian Award.

This episode is sponsored by Will Mari, author of Short History of Disruptive Journalism Technologies.


Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Teri Finneman, guiding you through our own drafts of history.

This episode is sponsored by Will Mari, author of the new book Short History of Disruptive Journalism Technologies. This is the first book-length account of the computerization of the newsroom during the Cold War. It tells the story of how word processing and a number of related technologies, including early laptops and pre-internet networks, changed the daily work routines of American news workers. It’s available on Amazon and

We’re in the midst of yet another presidential election campaign [season]. It’s been nearly 60 years now –

[0:01:00] since the first televised presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. In this episode we visit with media historian Michael Socolow at the University of Maine to learn more about how this practice got started and his thoughts on debates today.

Michael, welcome to the show. It’s interesting to think that a hundred years ago we still had presidential campaigns doing front porch campaigns where they didn’t go out and campaign, but people came to them and they literally gave speeches from their home front porches. Warren Harding’s campaign in 1920 is one example. So how is it that television inserted itself into the presidential campaign business?

Michael Socolow: Well, television broadcasting and politics on American television is an outgrowth of the radio age, and so you really get political broadcasting becoming, really maturing in the late 1920s. And then across the 1930s, you have the political parties –

[0:02:00] becoming much more savvy about how they’re using politics and broadcasting together. So there’s the example of President Roosevelt’s intimate address on the Fireside Chats, and there’s the energetic and enthusiastic addresses of Wendell Willkie in 1940 that do quite well, and you get this sort of evolution of broadcasting and political rhetoric address, rhetorical address, throughout the 1930s, and it matures in the 1940s. So that by the time television comes in, you really have a pretty long track record established of how to use broadcasting for politics.

Teri Finneman: So let’s talk about the television quiz show scandals and how that ties into what we’re talking about today.

Michael Socolow: The quiz show scandals are one of several variables or factors that go into the creation of the presidential debates. They’re probably the most important one because in the late 1950s the networks get in deep trouble with both Congress and the FCC, actually and the public as well, for working with advertisers to rig the quiz shows –

[0:03:00] which were the most popular form of broadcasting in the late 1950s. So the possibility of the presidential address gives the networks an opportunity for a new form of civic service that would help them increase their sort of regulatory favoritism from the FCC and from Congress right after the quiz show scandals.

But I should point out one other aspect of this, which is in the late 1950s there’s a series of events that occur that all conspire together, create the perfect environment for starting the presidential debates. So another example would be in 1957 when the Russians launched Sputnik. There’s this tremendous question over whether technology will be used for good or for evil, whether the Soviets, who are supposedly ahead of us technologically speaking at this point because of Sputnik, will be more innovative in their use of technologies in the Cold War context.

[0:04:00] And so what the television debates allow is this sense of kind of transparency and open democracy. We are willing to have our candidates for president address the entire nation, and that kind of establishes within the Cold War context, again, the civic service that the networks [break in audio] are doing.

Teri Finneman: So Frank Stanton is a man who’s gonna factor into our discussion today because he was a big factor in pushing for these presidential debates, and he’s a really fascinating character. So before we talk about the debates, tell us more about who this guy was and some of his controversial policies at CBS in the 1950s.

Michael Socolow: Okay, Frank Stanton is a really fascinating network figure. There’s no biography that’s been of him yet, and he intersects with network history in several different places. For instance, he’s the director of research at CBS in 1938 when Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds event occurred, and he’s the person who gets the most detailed study of that event, which he’s never released to the public. It’s not in the Stanton papers either in the Library of Congress.

[0:05:00] And then later in the 1940s, he’s kind of the young whiz of the business and he’s named president of CBS in 1946. He gets on the cover of Time magazine for introducing color television a decade before the FCC figures out the technical standards that are gonna use it. But specifically if you’re talking about his political work in the early 1950s, beginning about the Korean War, he is the person who institutes the loyalty oath at CBS, which is a revised version of the same loyalty oath that government employees have to take during the anti-communism scare, during the communism scare, the Red Scare of the early 1950s. He is blamed, and rightly so, for the blacklist working together with advertising agencies to find, circulate, and find and reaffirm a list of actors, producers, writers,  all kinds of broadcast people who are supposedly –

[0:06:00] affiliated or influenced in some way with communism. This is the famous Red Channels book and magazine. And Stanton plays a major role in instituting that in working with advertisers in really trying to keep CBS free of communistic influence. And he has taken quite a bit of criticism for that, for which he should, but one thing to remember about the loyalty pledge is how incredibly widespread through the industry and through government this anti-communism hysteria was. So for instance, Edward R. Murrow agreed to take the loyalty pledge in the early 1950s.

Teri Finneman: So returning to Stanton’s role with the presidential debates, he spent eight years trying to make this happen. Tell us more about the story behind that and why he was so determined to have presidential debates on TV.

Michael Socolow: Well, the story behind taking eight years is actually quite simple. Presidential debates –

[0:07:00] aren’t allowed statutorily to occur because the equal time clause of the original 1934 act, which by the way, because it wasn’t amended in the 1996 act, still exists but nobody pays attention to it anymore because of a series of FCC rulings. It literally said that anybody, not people who are running for president but anybody, could answer a political statement through broadcasting on the public airwaves. And so, as you can imagine, you couldn’t have a presidential debate ’cause you would have over a hundred million people who would have the opportunity to write into their local broadcasters’ licensees for equal time. So everybody knew when Stanton started this quest in the early 1950s that it was an impossibility. Legislatively and regulatorily, it could not occur. So that’s the first reason it took a very long time.

The second reason it took a very long time is because people forget that Eisenhower’s, if we go back to ’52 –

[0:08:00] We’ll skip over ’48 for a minute because ’48 election in television is a little bit odder and the coaxial cable only goes to Philadelphia, between Philadelphia and Boston, so it’s a small audience. But if we jump ahead to 1952, Eisenhower’s campaign was extremely media savvy. There’s the Stephen Bates and Edwin Diamond book [that] talks about this. Others talk about it. And they didn’t want – Eisenhower was an older man and they wanted to hide his kinda stumbling appearance, his bumbling rhetorical. He wasn’t made for TV, let’s put it that way. He wouldn’t be able to debate Stevenson very well, and so you had one party basically saying no, if we can’t control the image in 1952 and in 1956 we’re just not interested.

So it was only later in the 1950s that it became a possibility looking towards the election of 1960, and then as I mentioned earlier it was that series of things that conspired, the quiz show scandals, Sputnik, and a few other things that made it possible to move forward.

[0:09:00] Teri Finneman: So everybody’s very familiar with this famous Kennedy and Nixon debate, the very first one in 1960. This was before television really came into its own with politics after the Kennedy assassination in 1963. So why did these two candidates agree to do this?

Michael Socolow: Well, the first thing is, even before Stanton was able to push through a suspension of Section 315 through Congress, he had to be assured that both political parties would agree to it. And so it was known that before the nominees were chosen it was established that the parties had agreed to it, just to be clear. It wasn’t, it didn’t come down to Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy saying yes, although either of them could have said no. It was the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. It was the two parties agreeing to it in the late 1950s, early 1960s. And there have been a lot of questions about why they would agree to it, but the biggest one is just money. The sheer amount of money that had started to flow –

[0:10:00] into television advertising and politics heading into the late 1950s, heading into the ’60 election, kinda scared them a little bit, and here was a terrific opportunity to get their candidates, whoever they might be, out in front of the public in a huge national broadcast that had never been tried before. And so it was kind of done in that sense. It was a way to get free huge publicity.

Teri Finneman: Let’s take a listen to this very famous debate. This first Nixon-Kennedy debate took place on September 26th, 1960. This footage is courtesy of the JFK Library archives and CBS.

Announcer: Good evening. The television and radio stations of the United States and their affiliated stations are proud to provide facilities for a discussion of issues in the current political campaign by the two major candidates for the presidency. The candidates need no introduction, the Republican candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, and the Democratic candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy.

[0:11:00] According to rules set by the candidates themselves, each man shall make an opening statement of approximately eight minutes’ duration and a closing statement of approximately three minutes’ duration. In between, the candidates will answer or comment upon answers to questions put by a panel of correspondents. In this, the first discussion in a series of four joint appearances, the subject matter has been agreed will be restricted to internal or domestic American matters. And now for the first opening statement by Senator John F. Kennedy.

Teri Finneman: Nielsen reports that 60 percent of Americans who own TVs tuned in to watch this very first debate. And it’s a very popular mythology nowadays that this debate cost Nixon voters, and that the young, handsome Kennedy performed better than the tired-looking Nixon, who many people don’t realize was exhausted from campaigning and was getting over from being ill at the time. How much credibility –

[0:12:00] do you give to the influence of that debate in determining the election?

Michael Socolow: Actually very little, and I say that for two reasons. The first is the scholarship that’s revised the question of radio versus TV, and specifically the debate question. Now, you know this, that very famous study, and it was very small, of people who supposedly said Nixon won on radio and Kennedy won on television. And the reason I give it a very small thing is to – so in terms of the scholarship look at the work that Michael Schudson has done looking into this myth. Look at the work that Joe Campbell, W. Joseph Campbell did in his book on media myths. Then you’ll see that it doesn’t exactly fly, that study. That’s the first part. The second part is that it was an incredibly close election, and so I mean it was so close that it basically came down to Illinois, and it basically came down to the city of Chicago, and it basically came down to just a couple precincts. Much like our 2016 election when you think about it. And it was –

[0:13:00] so close in that sense that Nixon’s supposed underperformance, he wasn’t gonna run away with that election in other words. It was going to be a close election no matter what. And I think we generally tend to overestimate, in general, we overestimate the media’s effect on elections and, first of all, and second of all, when it, especially when it comes to presidential or political debates we very much overestimate. And I can give you other examples of that as well.

Teri Finneman: Sure, go ahead.

Michael Socolow: So for example, by every public opinion poll except maybe Rasmussen and a couple others, Hillary Clinton easily won every debate in 2016, significantly won by significant numbers. Not only did she win by public opinion poll, polling, and for instance the Gallup poll showed likely, [laughs] likely Republican Trump voters thought she won. It really didn’t have much of an effect on the election, unless you believe that Donald Trump would have won by what –

[0:14:00] much more and it hurt him to make it a close election. But Hillary Clinton dominated the three debates in 2016. That’s one example. The others are if you think of all the famous zingers that popped out, and the most famous one, you know, the vice-presidential debate, “I knew John Kennedy and you’re no John Kennedy,” against Dan Quayle, Dan Quayle still won. You know, these numbers, they don’t swing hugely on the presidential debates at all.

Teri Finneman: So there were no further televised debates for the 1964, 1968, and 1972 elections. Why not?

Michael Socolow: Well, it’s interesting. For a combination of reasons. The first and most significant reason is that Section 315 of the FCC act was only suspended for that election, so you’d have to go back to Congress each time. And obviously with Nixon’s problems on television, the Republicans were not excited for that. And the other reason is there was an FCC ruling –

[0:15:00] in Kennedy’s FCC that actually made the – that strengthened the equal time rule, which is sorta interesting because everybody thinks of Newton Minow as this kind of new regulatory activism. Well, one of the things, one of the ways he was an activist was to strengthen the ability of the equal time commentary request, and so that made the suspension of 315 that much more difficult.

So regulatorily, it would need a much bigger push from Congress and from the networks, and you combine that with the fact that LBJ did not like television and he didn’t like – although he was very good at it and he hired the best people, like the Daisy ad and stuff, and he was not very good at it. I take it back. But he hired the best people. LBJ, there’s recordings at the LBJ Library of him and Stanton on the phone joking about this, and LBJ says to him, laughing, no debates. No debates in 1964. So, you know, Stanton is warned, Stanton is warned away well before he has the opportunity.

[0:16:00] ’68 there’s no chance that Nixon’s going back to it, especially because Roger Ailes, if you look at the 1968 television campaign by Nixon, it’s absolutely brilliant. Remember they created the town hall where Nixon used syndicated television, a half hour of him speaking to normal, average Americans, supposedly? That was much more effective than any kind of debate, so that eliminated ’68 and ’72. And then we get up to ’76.

Teri Finneman: The debates ended up returning in 1976. According to the History Channel a 1975 FCC decision allowed presidential debates between major party nominees to occur without special acts of Congress, and in 1976 Gerald Ford was dealing with the post-Watergate fallout and a bad economy when he challenged Jimmy Carter to debate, thereby restoring televised presidential debates according to a PBS NewsHour guide on debate history. Since then, as you’ve mentioned –

[0:17:00] many notable moments have come from presidential and vice-presidential debates. A few years ago Time magazine created a top ten list. Here are some of those moments. One is from Gerald Ford in 1976.

Gerald Ford: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.

Teri Finneman: And then this one from Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Ronald Reagan: Mr. Trewhitt, and I, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience. [Laughter]

Teri Finneman: And then as we talked about from Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle in 1988.

Lloyd Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. [Applause]

[0:18:00] Teri Finneman: In more current times, people have so many ways to access information about candidates. How important, Michael, do you think televised presidential debates are for a democracy and its election process today?

Michael Socolow: Well, that’s a great question, and the example of Ford is a good one because the Ford gaffe about Poland not being dominated by the Soviet Union would argue that he lost that debate pretty badly, when in fact if you look at the trajectory of that election he kept strengthening his popularity constantly, and he made it quite close to Carter, much closer than it should have been otherwise.

So even though he lost the debate he continued to strengthen his campaign. As to the larger question of what role the presidential debates have in our democracy, I would say they have the possibility or opportunity of having a good role except they’re not really debates. You don’t get – the candidates aren’t allowed to ask each other questions. So they’re really –

[0:19:00] the way they’re currently structured, they’re little more than parallel press conferences. The candidates have never, for instance, directly questioned each other without the moderator’s role, and I think that would make – a true debate would be significantly better for clarifying issues of difference than what we have, which is a moderator talks to Candidate A and then a moderator talks to Candidate B, and the lack of interaction, the lack of dynamism is really a problem and therefore it really doesn’t change people’s minds as much as we’d like to think.

Teri Finneman: So jumping off that, obviously we’re in the midst of 2019 Democratic debates, and NBC and especially CNN have faced some sharp criticism for their debate structures. What do you think about these formats?

Michael Socolow: Actually I, actually I believe that both CNN and NBC have done a pretty good job. They have an [laughs] they have kind of an impossible task, right, because they don’t have –

[0:20:00] any way to really separate – remember whoever the nominee is is gonna be on every ballot, is gonna have the opportunity to win the electoral votes, so it’s not up to NBC and CNN to rule that there can’t be 20 people running for president. So when you begin with that premise that all of these 20 or 21 candidates – I think there was 21 before Gravel dropped out – have an actual statutory or legislatively have an opportunity to win the electoral college, you can’t winnow them out. And therefore, as long as you’re sticking to – here’s, again, the problem. As long as you’re sticking to this moderator for this kind of relationship where each candidate addresses the moderator and the moderator flips it back to a candidate, that’s the real problem. But generally I’ve read that –  I’m not a hundred percent sure on how this works but candidates have never agreed to direct questioning from each other, and if they tried that, they’d all pull out –

[0:21:00] because it’s too dangerous for them if you think about it. So with this moderator back and forth debate, and with the structures that are in place by the parties, I actually think they didn’t do too badly a job. I mean the one, my one NBC complaint is pretty simple, which is Chuck Todd talked too much. The moderators really need to restrain themselves much more. But that’s more of kind of a personality. That’s not a format. I think they did their best with a format that’s really constrained.

Teri Finneman: There have been suggestions lately that these debates should be fact-checked in real time due to the number of false or misleading statements that are made, and the smaller percentage of people who see the fact checks later. What do you think about that?

Michael Socolow: I have a real problem with fact checking, and with fact checking as it’s currently done. And so I’ll give you a perfect example. The Washington Post fact checker ruled that Bernie Sanders’ statistics about wealth inequality was untrue, but the Washington Post fact checker actually said that  –

[0:22:00] that they were accurate. They were accurate but untrue because of context, and the example was – I can’t remember the exact thing. It was something to the effect of – I’m summarizing here, or I’m paraphrasing – that the three richest Americans have as much wealth as the 50, bottom 50 percent of America. And the Washington Post ruled that despite the fact that this is accurate, okay, it is true if you look at the numbers, the organization that created the statistics did not take into account mortgage debt and therefore Americans are investing and living in these houses that will gain a certain amount of money, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and it just went on and on, and it was absolutely ridiculous. Either something is, especially if it’s data and quantitative, either something is provably true or it’s not, and to say, to bring in this larger context of mortgage debt showed that the Washington Post wasn’t serious about fact checking. And so, this is the whole question of the literalness, the use of irony, the way we think about rhetoric, the way we think about how we talk –

[0:23:00] the way we think about context, and fact checking simply isn’t capable of addressing these larger questions, and so I actually have a problem with it.

Now, there’s a second issue here, which is how do you combat actual lies, provable lies that are said during a debate, and I do not believe that fact checking in the moment is the way to do it. I believe it’s up to the candidate or the moderator. You’re saying it’s the journalists’ responsibility at that moment to say, “No, Mr. Trump. No, Mrs. Clinton. You are factually inaccurate.” I disagree with that. I would rather have the candidates battle it out and say, “My source is X, Y, and Z. According to the Bureau of Labor Statis-” blah, blah, blah. And, you know, then we could have the rational, critical debate. And if the candidates choose not to do that, which is what happened in 2016, then unfortunately that, they’ll be the ones who have to pay the price.

Teri Finneman: So going off that and taking into consideration your knowledge of –

[0:24:00] the history of presidential debates, what other advice would you give a candidate for how to perform well on television during a debate?

Michael Socolow: Well, just to be clear, I actually study, I study Frank Stanton and I’m fascinated by him as a network figure. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the political debates, but I would say that there’s a couple things that the audience – there’s a role for the audience to watch in a certain respect. Okay? I think a lot of Americans in 2016 were frustrated and angered that the audience for the debates treated it as entertainment, didn’t treat it as a serious civic function about questions like Russian interference in the election or lots of questions like that. But this is an issue with the audience. This is not an issue with the people who produced it and this is not an issue with the candidates, although I would say that the candidates, both candidates, could do a better job of illustrating their differences –

[0:25:00] more clearly and quickly and succinctly in the debates. But I believe the audience – there’s a question here about how the audience approaches these debates, and I do think the networks and the politicians could do a lot better priming their audience for what they’re gonna see and how they’re gonna see it in the debate. You know, in other words, everybody wants the zinger. Everybody wants the quick comeback. Everybody wants the sound bite, and they’re very focused on that. That does a disservice to the larger question of context in politics, but that’s where the political environment is right now. So the moderator of these debates can ask a very substantive question, but in the head of the politicians they’re just waiting for the next zinger or the next opportunity to zing the others and, you know, I don’t blame the moderator for that. It’s the question of, to me, what is the audience’s responsibility watching these debates, and that’s where I think the larger media ecosystem could do a better job –

[0:26:00] of priming the audience before the debate actually occurs.

Teri Finneman: Our final question of the show is why does journalism history matter?

Michael Socolow: Journalism history matters for a lot of reasons, but the first and most obvious is that there are historical parallels to everything we’re going through. We constantly see this refrain about the idea that this is an unprecedented moment in American history and yet if you look at the way the media has shaped our perceptions of our political culture in America, we have had incredibly controversial, brutal, critical political environments before. And so by adding that context there’s a relevancy about how we actually service democracy that I would argue more Americans need to know. So that’s why journalism history is relevant is that you can’t constantly think everything’s new, because without context you don’t have the knowledge –

[0:27:00] and information to evaluate the world you live in. So that’s kind of a long-winded way of saying that journalism history is very important because it actually plays a role in informing democracy.

Teri Finneman: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.

Michael Socolow: Thank you, Teri.

Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Will Mari, and to Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time I’m your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night, and good luck.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s