Fears about the intersection of presidential politics and television broadcast, however, present a curious exception.
Fifty-six years after technology critics worried that television would revolutionize—and degrade—American politics, Donald Trump is the embodiment of their worst fears: He is a candidate who picks stunts over substance, who deliberately obfuscates rather than clarifies his thinking before the public, and who routinely tells blatant lies as part of a political performance that’s tailor-made for the modern spectacle of broadcast politics.
The ugliness of presidential campaigns predates Trump by generations, but it was never quite like this before.
On the evening of September 26, 1960, Kennedy and Nixon debated domestic policy before a television audience of some 66 million people; the equivalent of nearly 37 percent of the population at the time. (Estimates of viewership at the time were even higher, closer to 74 million people, according to The New York Times that year.) In seven cities—New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Washington—more than half of the population tuned in, according to estimates from the American Research Bureau.
It was an unprecedented television event with an enormous audience, decades before broadcasts were seen as the mass shared experiences they would eventually become. Football games and sitcoms established this cultural phenomenon in the 1980s and early 1990s, with widely watched Super Bowl games and series finales like M*A*S*H and Cheers, but it all began with Nixon and Kennedy. (The 2015 Super Bowl, a match-up between New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, drew the largest television audience ever recorded in the United States—with more than 115 million viewers. That’s the equivalent of about 36 percent of the overall population, putting the game’s audience as a percentage of the total population on par with that of the presidential debate on September 26, 1960.)
For all of the interest the debate generated, it was widely received as a mild—even boring—broadcast. Not only did candidates avoid a “verbal slugfest,” as one Chicago newspaper put it at the time, but they were altogether humorless.
The New York Times called the event “refreshing in its own slightly stodgy way,” and others praised it in more glowing terms, but not everyone was dazzled. In newspaper editorials around the country, people complained of the broadcast as “bad television,” “stiff and formalized,” and all around “not great”—ironically, given its promotion as the Great Debate.
Judging by newspaper coverage at the time, there was as much interest in how the candidates performed as there was with what the debate portended for the future of American politics. In one sprawling 1960 essay, published in the Times the day before Nixon and Kennedy took the stage, the writer and former White House aide Emmet John Hughes imagined two starkly different futures—one in which television would help democracy flourish and the other in which television would severely debase the nation’s political culture.