Changing media outlets affect political campaigns

By Gretchen Andersen

Fifty years ago this week, the first televised debate aired, allowing voters to see the… Fifty years ago this week, the first televised debate aired, allowing voters to see the candidates’ faces and beginning a trend that is now engrained in local, state and federal politics.

But as gubernatorial candidates Tom Corbett and Dan Onorato prepare for their debate next month, new media outlets like YouTube and Facebook are once again redefining the face of American elections, Pitt professors said.

Professors Gerald Shuster and Barbara Warnick, both professors of communication, discussed the 50th anniversary of the first televised debate this week.

“The media environment at the time of the debates made the candidates visually accessable to the public instead of reading the newspaper,” Warnick said.

The first televised debate, featuring John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, aired on Sept. 26, 1960. Shuster said Nixon was considered a “shoo-in” before the debate because of his experience as vice president.

But, with the onset of television, candidates like Nixon now had to be telegenic and image took over, Shuster said.

Kennedy spent six days at his residence in Florida prior to the event, leaving him well-tanned, Shuster said. Kennedy also had his hair trimmed and styled, and his relative Peter Lawford — a member of the Rat Pack — arranged for quality on-camera makeup.

“Nixon enjoyed the flu four days prior to the scheduled debate,” Shuster said. “He was pale-looking and lacked the makeup expertise.”

What unfolded was not only a stark contrast on camera, with a cool-looking Kennedy against a perspiring Nixon, but a new precedent for future politicians — televised debates. Overnight, television became the norm for politicians of every level.

Fifty years later, the American people still watch televised debates though the practice has changed significantly since its inception.

“After the first debate, it stopped being a debate,” Shuster said. “Now the rules are so tight. The spontaneity was taken out with time limits and commercial breaks.”

The debate between Corbett and Onorato will be hosted by The Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters, and will air at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 on WPXI.

Richard Wyckoff, PAB president, said that 25 stations statewide will show the debate and John Baer, political commentator for the Philadelphia Daily News, will moderate.

“The debate offers an upfront and personal look at the candidates in the convenience of your home,” Wyckoff said. “You can watch them respond to some hard questions instead of seeing 30-second political ads or billboards and listen and learn about issues that are important to you.”

Shuster said the gubernatorial debate will draw fewer viewers because it will be up against “football and other TV.”

“A friend of mine once said that watching local debates is much like ‘watching grass grow and cars rust,’”