It’s not debatable: Chicago played huge role in televised campaigning

10 Oct

By Megan Ashley

Known to many Americans as simply the “Great Debate,” the first-ever televised presidential debate between the 1960 candidates, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, changed American politics forever.

The debate, held on Sept. 26, 1960 in Chicago’s old WBBM-TV studios on North McClurg Court, was the first of four debates to be aired that year before November’s presidential election. Over 70 million viewers tuned in for the first debate, a record that has yet to be surpassed by any other political event.

“You did your work and got out of there,” said Sander Vanocur, a former TV reporter and participant in the event. “Nobody was telling us what we saw so we didn’t understand the significance at the time.”

Bruce DuMont, president of The Museum of Broadcast Communications here, refers to the highly-anticipated event as “the most important show ever to come out of Chicago.” This year marks the 50th anniversary and Chicago celebrated accordingly, with a panel discussion at the Union League Club.

Vanocur, Newton Minow, Bill Kurtis and Alderman Ed Burke discussed a wide range of topics, including little-known facts about the debate, its significance and journalism in general. Vanocur, representing NBC at the time, was one of the four journalists who questioned Kennedy and Nixon.

The presidential candidates’ appearances at the debate have long been analyzed for their impact on the election. Kennedy wore makeup and Nixon didn’t; Kennedy wore a dark suit and Nixon wore a gray suit, which incidentally blended into the studio’s gray walls; Kennedy had a tan and Nixon looked pale, having recently been in the hospital.

For the first time in the nation’s political history, millions of Americans had the opportunity to visually compare them, up close and personal, in debate. What the two men said took a back seat to how they said it—and how they looked while saying it. Interestingly, Vanocur admitted that those at the WBBM-TV studios that night did not fully understand the importance of these factors.

Minow worked on Kennedy’s presidential campaign and negotiated on his behalf prior to the Great Debate. He was appointed Federal Communications Commission head by Kennedy in 1961 shortly after his election to the White House. Today, he feels “both parties are out of step with what the American public needs.”

Minow also addressed what he feels are declining standards of journalism, saying that journalists fail to fact-check as much as they should. “Cynicism has replaced skepticism among journalists,” he added.

Bill Kurtis, an anchor for CBS 2 Chicago, served as the discussion’s moderator. He prompted the panelists with questions but also had several opportunities to voice his own opinion. He lamented the lack of coverage for middle ground politics, admitting that radical politics typically receive the most media attention.

When asked by an audience member about the best way to find accurate and unbiased political facts, Kurtis had no other response except, “Do it yourself.” In a day and age where news has been commercialized and opinionated, the responsibility falls upon the shoulders of the public.

According to Kurtis, one needs to seek out their own information and draw their own conclusions before heading to the polls.

Ald. Burke, a Chicago historian, was rather quiet when compared to the other panelists. The possibility of his running for mayor was addressed, which launched into a discussion of America’s history of great politicians.

The question circled: Would Abraham Lincoln have won the presidency in the age of television and media-driven campaigns?

He was not the most attractive man, nor did he have a pleasant voice or particularly congenial mannerisms. And yet, Lincoln is undoubtedly one of the greatest presidents the United States has ever seen.

For better or for worse, the Great Debate solidified the bond between presidential campaigns and the media. American politics and television have had over 50 years together and there is no end in sight.

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