Short on time?

Get essay writing help

The Role of the ‘Great Debate’ in Shaping the Relationship Between Politics and the Mass Media

Words: 2024
Pages: 4
This essay sample was donated by a student to help the academic community. Papers provided by EduBirdie writers usually outdo students' samples.

The 1950s saw television, then considered a new medium for political coverage, rapidly surpassing radio and even newspapers as the major source of public information about politics by the 1960s. It became a serious competitor of newspaper for advertising revenue and for consumers time as it had a major growth in the early and middle 1950s. Newspapers were still prospering which at first made the arrival of television look like a minimal threat, however with time publishers and editors started to realize how great of a competition television was for advertising and news reporting. By the end of the 1950s television's vast audiences had forced newspapers to adjust to a new media marketplace and required newspaper to adapt. An example of television's increasing influence in political coverage were the 1952 and 1956 national political conventions where television dominated the reports. The audiences for the televised events were far larger than in 1948, more than 60 million people watched the 1952 Republican National Convention, the largest audience for a live television event to that date.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the 35th president of the United States, he was running against Richard Nixon, who was vice president at that time. The way this election unfolded was one that set a lasting precedent in the elections to follow, this period marked a significant change in the way the American people chose their leader. It embodied the growing importance of television in political news coverage. It also became clear during this election that this new format gave a new approach to the portrayal of political key figures such as the candidates for the presidency. Much like the Internet today, television seemed to have spread overnight, indeed, by 1960, 88% of American households had televisions whereas only 11% were in possession of this new device. The number of viewers who tuned in to the debate has been estimated as high as 74 million. On September 26 1960 took place the first of a series of 4 presidential debates between the two candidates for the presidency, during the debates between the two candidates, Americans for the first time could watch the debates on television, or listen on the radio. Most voters never had a chance to see candidates in a close, personal way, giving them the opportunity to form an opinion about the next president based on their looks, their voice and their opinions. This first debate is considered to have sealed the result of the election in favor of Kennedy at election time, more than half of all voters reported that the Great Debates had influenced their opinion; 6% reported that their vote was the result of the debates alone. However, Kennedy was not considered the favorite prior to the debate, as Nixon led by six percentage points in the national polls. JFK only had little experience as he served a single term in the U.S. senate, the 43-year-old Kennedy in comparison lacked Nixon’s extensive foreign policy experience and had the disadvantage of being one of the first Catholics to run for president on a major party ticket. Nixon, by contrast, was way more experienced as he had spent nearly eight years as the country’s second-in-command after a great career in Congress. It is clear that Kennedy understood the advantages this new format could give and took advantage of it. So, how did the first 'Great Debate' help to shape the relationship between politics and the mass media?

First of all, the famous presidential debate of September 26, 1960, made a great difference for Kennedy. This debate took place in Chicago, at the CBS broadcast facility. This was the first televised presidential debate in history. The moderator of the debate was CBS journalist Howard K. Smith. It lasted 60 minutes and focused on domestic issues. A panel of three journalists asked questions of each candidate. Both Kennedy and Nixon were allowed to make 8-minute opening statements and 3-minute closing statements. In between, they were allowed 2 and a half minutes to respond to questions and a short amount of time for rebuttals to their opponent. Many of the people who watched the debate believed that Kennedy was superior to Nixon, when on the contrary it is said that people who listened to the debate on the radio believed Nixon was superior to Kennedy. Each mastered their discourse and presented remarkably similar agendas. Both emphasized national security, the threat of communism, the need to strengthen the U.S. military and the importance of building a brighter future for America, indeed, after Kennedy’s opening statement, Nixon said, “I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight”. And yet, while most radio listeners called the first debate a draw or pronounced Nixon winner, the soon to be president won over the 70 million television viewers by a large margin, which leads to the assumption that Kennedy had something more to show than Nixon. Starting with the way they expressed themselves. Kennedy came across as charming and entertaining, he was also relatable as he used casual language during his statements such as “If we do well here, if we meet our obligations, if we're moving ahead, then I think freedom will be secure around the world. If we fail, then freedom fails. Therefore, I think the question before the American people is: Are we doing as much as we can do?”; opposing to the Vice President who came across as straightforward, using a stronger vocabulary and attacked Kennedy: “Is the United States standing still? Is it true that this administration, as Senator Kennedy has charged, has been an administration of retreat, of defeat, of stagnation? Is it true that, as far as this country is concerned, in the field of electric power, in all of the fields that he has mentioned, we have not been moving ahead. Well, we have a comparison that we can make. We have the record of the Truman administration of seven and a half years and the seven and a half years of the Eisenhower Administration”. But that is not it, there is also something that television viewers could witness.

Indeed, many factors led to Kennedy being more convincing than Nixon on TV, and it has a lot to do with their appearance and body language. When Kennedy arrived at the facility, he was already wearing make-up, had a visible tan and was wearing a dark suit. He had been staying in a hotel with his aides for an entire weekend, practicing questions and resting up for the first of the four ‘Great Debates’. He looked well and in good shape, he performed confidently and thereby came across presidential. He practiced extensively and rested up for the event. On the contrary, his opponent had to face multiple health problems before he arrived to the set. Nixon had recently suffered from the flu and was still experiencing a bit of fever, he still spent the day campaigning and looked exhausted. He refused to wear make-up as Kennedy turned down the studio's offer to put make-up on him, however the vice-president did not know that JFK was already wearing some. He was wearing a light gray suit that was hard to distinguish from the grey wall behind him during the debate. On top of that, Vice President Nixon injured his knee and was in the hospital for two weeks. He had lost weight and was still pale by the time of the debate, and as he was stepping out of the car, he banged his bad knee and exacerbated his earlier injury, leading to him standing in a very uncomfortable position during the entire debate.

Save your time!
We can take care of your essay
  • Proper editing and formatting
  • Free revision, title page, and bibliography
  • Flexible prices and money-back guarantee
Place Order

Oddly enough, it was Richard Nixon who discovered the political power of the new medium. Richard Nixon, discovered the influence of television. It was Nixon's famous speech where he used a televised address to debunk slush-fund allegations that he gave in 1952 in which he laid out his personal finances at the same time as he was drawing attention to a dog given to him 'Checkers', it raised his sympathy capital. This helped give birth to a political landscape where personality is as important as policy that turned the tide from a party-based to a candidate-controlled political environment (indeed the 1960 election focused on the candidates, and not issues, both Kennedy and Nixon ran centrist campaigns); using television as he did in a personal way, as his wife Pat sat next to him during the broadcast, allowed him to save his political career.

Nixon tried to correct his mistakes by being more prepared for the other debates, and actually did better in the following debates (he appeared better thanks to the 'milkshake diet' his aides put him on to fatten him up) and a healthier Nixon was judged to have won two of them, with the final debate resulting in a draw. However, the last three debates were watched by 20 million fewer people than the September 26th event which made them matter less in comparison. But the damage had been done. Even Kennedy acknowledged the medium's role in his victory. On November 12, 1960, four days after winning the election by a thin margin, he said, “It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide”. While two years after the 'Great Debates', the man on the losing end acknowledged their importance and his mistake: “I should have remembered that a picture is worth a thousand words”. After the debate, how you presented yourself, what you looked like, how you sounded and whether you connected directly with audiences mattered, says Larry Sabato, political analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Before the television debates most Americans didn't even see the candidates, they read about them, they saw photos of them. This allowed the public to judge candidates on a completely different basis. It's a reality that continues to influence campaigns today. When parties are considering their candidates, they ask: ‘Who would look better on TV?’, ‘Who comes across better?’, ‘Who can debate better?’.

Televised debates have become a permanent feature of the American political landscape (as well as other countries political landscape), since Gerald Ford in 1976 established the current tradition of televised presidential debates in every general election after a three-year campaign hiatus of debates. These help to shape the outcomes of both primary and general elections. They help candidates distinguish themselves from their opponents and they also give candidates the opportunity to showcase their oratory skills or betray their lack of such skills, display their sense of humor which tends to help a candidate's portrayal and perception to the public as he will seem more relatable (or reveal an absence of humor and show a more serious character, who can be seen as more unpleasant). This does raise the question of whether this superficiality is a danger, as the looks become more important than the substance, as seen in the 2016 election.

In many ways, the 1960 election was the first modern American political campaign, not only broadcasting presidential debates but also campaign ads for candidates or against another candidate but also having them on talk shows. The impact it had is evident nowadays as another new medium, the Internet, needs to be mastered all over again. The importance of the new mass media was understood and with the knowledge of the impact that the television had on politics, political figures are aware of the need to develop skills in the arising mass media. Until the election of 1960, the medium of television had not been central to politics and vice versa, television was mainly used as an entertaining medium, with the next debates taking place nearly a decade and a half after, the impact of the first 'Great Debate' made the following candidates afraid of such power (when running 8 years after the Kennedy-Nixon debate, he this time refused to have a debate against his opponent, not wanting to reproduce the same scenario). When you mix the rise of television and the way Kennedy mastered the new medium's power, it actually makes sense. Kennedy is an inspiration for following candidates who search to handle mass media.


Make sure you submit a unique essay

Our writers will provide you with an essay sample written from scratch: any topic, any deadline, any instructions.

Cite this Page

The Role of the ‘Great Debate’ in Shaping the Relationship Between Politics and the Mass Media. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2023, from
“The Role of the ‘Great Debate’ in Shaping the Relationship Between Politics and the Mass Media.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
The Role of the ‘Great Debate’ in Shaping the Relationship Between Politics and the Mass Media. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 Dec. 2023].
The Role of the ‘Great Debate’ in Shaping the Relationship Between Politics and the Mass Media [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2023 Dec 6]. Available from:
Join 100k satisfied students
  • Get original paper written according to your instructions
  • Save time for what matters most
hire writer

Fair Use Policy

EduBirdie considers academic integrity to be the essential part of the learning process and does not support any violation of the academic standards. Should you have any questions regarding our Fair Use Policy or become aware of any violations, please do not hesitate to contact us via

Check it out!
search Stuck on your essay?

We are here 24/7 to write your paper in as fast as 3 hours.