The State of the Presidential Debate

September 11, 2016

By Jill Lepore at The New Yorker

This election’s first Presidential debate will be held on September 26th, the anniversary of the first televised Presidential debate, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, in 1960. Nixon and Kennedy met in a bare CBS studio in Chicago, without an audience; the event was broadcast, live, by CBS, NBC, and ABC. Each candidate made an eight-minute opening statement and a three-minute closing statement. The rules were the result of strenuous negotiating. The very scheduling required Congress to temporarily suspend an F.C.C. regulation granting equal time to all Presidential candidates (there were at least fourteen). Much of the negotiation involved seemingly little things. Nixon wanted no reaction shots; he wanted viewers to see only the guy who was talking. But Kennedy wanted them, and prevailed, with the concession that neither man be shown wiping the sweat from his face. Then there were bigger things. The networks wanted Nixon and Kennedy to question each other; both men insisted on taking questions from a panel of reporters, one from each network, a format that is more generally known as a parallel press conference. ABC refused to call the event a “debate”—the network billed it, instead, as a “joint appearance”—but everyone else did. Sixty-six million Americans watched Nixon scowl, and the misnomer stuck...