Monthly Archives: October 2012

Presidential debates: some background

by Christopher B. Daly 

With the second presidential debate of the 2012 election set for Tuesday evening, the stakes could not be higher. Everyone in the media seems to be handicapping the event. David Carr weighed in this morning, and the issue is all over the cable talk shows, NPR, and elsewhere. As a public service, I am offering this historical perspective — an excerpt from my recent book, Covering America.

In the fall of 1960, many Americans were still in the process of getting to know Jack Kennedy. Just forty-three years old, he represented the World War II generation, declaring himself ready to take over from Eisenhower, the very man who had commanded the young troops in wartime. Kennedy was not only young, he was also rich, good-looking, and married to a very photogenic wife. With his distinctive accent, his cool demeanor, and his ironic wit, he was well suited to the new medium that was about to make its mark on American politics in a dramatic way—television. Just in time for the 1960 election, Congress had passed a law repealing the FCC’s “equal time” rule, which had required broadcasters to give equal amounts of air time to all candidates for office, including fringe candidates and cranks. In 1960, for example, there were more than a dozen political parties offering candidates for president. It would have been impossible—and perhaps illegal—for a broadcaster to hold a debate that excluded any of them.  In a step that went a long way toward perpetuating the dominance of the two major parties, Congress decided to lift that ban for the 1960 campaign and to have the FCC study the issue. When the new law was signed on August 24, 1960, the way was clear for the networks to approach the Democrat Kennedy and the Republican Nixon and offer them an exclusive one-on-one format for the first televised presidential debate in history.


The challenger, Kennedy, promptly agreed. The establishment candidate, Nixon, hesitated. As the sitting vice president, he had more to lose in a debate, and Eisenhower urged him to decline. But Nixon did not want to give the appearance of fear, so he accepted. On September 26, 1960, the candidates met at WBBM, the CBS affiliate in Chicago, for the first of four debates. Key roles went to two members of the old Murrow team at CBS: newsman Howard K. Smith would moderate, and Don Hewitt would direct. Shortly before airtime, Nixon entered the studio from one side, Kennedy from the other. Hewitt stepped in between them and tried to break the ice, saying, “I assume you two gentlemen know each other.” Then Hewitt asked Kennedy if he wanted any makeup. The senator, tanned from campaigning in California, said no. Nixon, who was exhausted from a recent illness, felt he had to decline too (though his handlers did get him to apply some “Lazy-Shave,” a grooming product that was supposed to reduce the effect of Nixon’s five o’clock shadow). In the debate, both men proved to be quite skillful, commanding facts and arguments with ease. But Kennedy came off as the far more appealing candidate—at least to those who watched the performance on TV. Confident, calm, witty, he captured television and never let it go.


Although Jack (and Jackie) famously enjoyed favorable press attention, the general tide of editorial opinion in U.S. newspapers and magazines favored the publishers’ preferred cause, the Republican Party. In a pre-election critique, Liebling quoted an October 18, 1960, headline:



 And it was not just newspapers. At CBS, Bill Paley—now fabulously wealthy and heedless of any ethical issues raised by partisanship—was personally involved in the Nixon campaign, to which he donated $25,000, a sizable sum. It has often been said that Kennedy’s performance in the televised debates, in which he could speak to (and be seen by) the voters directly, put him over the top. Of course, in a close race—Kennedy won by about 100,000 votes out of some 69 million—everything matters, so it could also be said that Kennedy’s claims of a “missile gap” or the suspicious votes he got out of Chicago or any number of other factors proved crucial. But given the closeness of the race, it is likely that without the television debates, he probably would not have made it. In 1960 television had arrived just in time to help put Jack Kennedy in the White House.


Of all the ways the news media helped Kennedy, probably none mattered so much as what the media did not do. Throughout his presidency and for years afterward, reporters, photographers, and their editors turned a blind eye to some of the most reckless behavior ever engaged in by a sitting president. As Walter Cronkite explained the ethos: “In the sixties, the Washington press, like the media elsewhere, operated on a rule of thumb regarding the morals of our public men. The rule had it that, as long as his outside activities, alcoholic or sexual, did not interfere with or seriously endanger the discharge of his public duties, a man was entitled to his privacy.” The press corps extended to Kennedy all the traditional courtesies enjoyed by presidents, and then some. As with FDR’s polio, Kennedy’s crippling back pain (caused by Addison’s disease) was kept from the public, along with the regimen of pills and painkillers JFK took. While the stories that were published and broadcast drew attention to Kennedy’s heroism in the Navy or to his wife’s leopard-skin pillbox hats, the stories that were not published or broadcast kept the public in the dark about Kennedy’s many extramarital affairs.


The reporters who covered Kennedy were enablers of such behavior every bit as much as his doctors, his brother Robert, or the many presidential aides who all covered up for Kennedy. Such protection of the president may have stemmed in part from journalists’ professional aspirations, expressed in their disdain for what were known as “keyhole” reporters like Winchell, who published anything and everything. By the time a reporter makes it to covering the White House, he or she usually hopes to be focused on bigger issues than the president’s sex life. At the same time, the protection of the president may also have stemmed from reporters’ traditional concern about access, an issue that bedevils all reporters who cover powerful people, from presidents to corporate tycoons to home-run kings. The powerful person almost always controls who gets how close, and reporters are usually suckers for the feeling of being in the know that comes from getting close to powerful  newsmakers. For his part, Kennedy had an unerring sense of what reporters wanted—and what they were willing to overlook in order to get it.


During the Kennedy presidency, television news became more powerful than ever. In the years since the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, television executives had been atoning by lavishing resources on their news divisions. Television sets were in the vast majority of homes by 1960, and the audience for the TV networks dwarfed that of any newspaper and even the readership of the entire Time-Life empire. The media president, Jack Kennedy, also introduced live television coverage of presidential news conferences and proceeded to thrive in the new forum. Television carried more news than ever, to more people. . .


CBS News producer Don Hewitt (center) gestures while making arrangements for Kennedy and Nixon to speak in the first televised presidential debate, 1960.

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Photo-fakery’s long history

By Christopher B. Daly 

As scholars, experts, and darkroom-based photographers have long known, there is a history of faking, editing, and massaging the imagery of photographs that goes back almost to the very beginnings of photography in the early 19th Century. Now comes a terrific exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that examines the phenomenon, titled “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.” The show was put together by the Met’s assistant photo curator, Mia Fineman. The exhibit is accompanied by a catalogue published by Yale University Press.  And, to make the inquiry complete, she has also put together a related exhibit at the Met featuring photos that have been manipulated during the digital era.

The whole thing is a lot of fun, but to my eye, the best feature is the terrific website that accompanies “Faking It.” The Met has put all the photos online, sometimes paired with the unfaked originals. The images are high-resolution .jpeg files. (Click “view all,” and you will be busy for quite a while.)

For my purposes, the best parts are those that involve fakery in journalism and/or history. The exhibit includes some of the classic abuses of photography by the 20th Century’s worst madmen-killers such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Trusted aides and political allies who fall out of favor also ended up falling out of official photos. It is chilling to see real people just “disappear” from scenes.

Then, there are instances where photojournalists could not bring themselves to settle for reality. One of the clearest is the photo “depicting” the execution of the convicted Lindbergh baby-kidnapper. Turns out, photos were banned in the death chamber, and the image is a mash-up of a real person posing in the electric chair with the face of Bruno Richard Hauptmann superimposed. There are many other examples that should wise us all up about the supposed accuracy of photography.



For further reading:

The New York Times had piece on Friday announcing the exhibit.

The Boston Globe had more of a “think piece” about it today.

Author, film-maker, and skeptic Errol Morris has a recent book on the subject, titled Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.”

One more (WRH as a malevolent octupus):

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By Christopher B. Daly

As a public service, I am following up on a recent post about Jack Welch, the original “jobber,” who tried to launch the rumor that the professionals at the Bureau of Labor Statistics was cooking the books on the monthly unemployment figures as a political favor to their boss. Turns out, the journalists at Fortune (where Welch had a column) could not let that stand; they did what journalists are supposed to do — they did some checking and found nothing to it.

In umbrage at their verification efforts, Welch announced that he was quitting his ties to Fortune. Hmmm…

Here’s Fortune’s version.

Here’s the take-away:

Monday morning on MSNBC’s Morning JoeFortune managing editor Andy Serwer said there were a number of things wrong with Welch’s tweet, the biggest of which was that the economy doesn’t back up the former executive’s claim that the numbers were faked.

“I think it’s exactly the opposite of what Jack Welch is saying,” Serwer said. “Things are actually improving.”

Also, I had a chance to look further into GE’s stock performance. The 5-year chart below shows quite clearly that GE’s stock was cratering  (along with the rest of the economy) late in the Bush administration. Under Obama, the stock has steadily risen and has about doubled under the current administration’s policies.

Price Chart

1 day | 5 day | 3 month | 1 year | 5 year


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Ban the NCAA (cont.)

By Christopher B. Daly

More evidence of the gulf between big-time football and higher education:


In a recent tweet, Ohio State reserve qb Cardale Jones had this to say:

Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS. (emphasis in original)

Why indeed?



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Math for journalists (cont.)

By Christopher B. Daly

When the latest jobs figures came out on Friday, one of the first dissenting voices was that of Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric. In a Twitter message, he expressed overt skepticism about the integrity of the numbers generated by the non-partisan Bureau of Labor Statistics. Welch suggested that the falling unemployment rate did not square with an overall economy that he considers sluggish.

Many journalists quoted him at face value. Few noted that Welch is a Republican and a Republican donor.

Even fewer noted that much of Welch’s personal fortune takes the form of GE stock. Which raises the question: What has happened to the value of GE stock since Obama took office?

Turns out, the Obama years have been very good years for GE (and thus for Welch). When Obama took office in January 2009, GE stock was in the toilet, trading at about $12 a share. At the close of trading on Friday, GE stock was valued at about $23 a share. In other words, the value of the stock has nearly doubled under this president.

Who says the economy is not improving?

If anybody would know, it should be Jack Welch.


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Red Sox 2012: RIP

This, alas, has to be said.

(And a hat-tip to Charlie Pierce for saying it.)

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Presidential debate: The global perspective

By Christopher B. Daly

I had the opportunity to watch the presidential debate last night with a unique group of non-voters: a dozen grad students enrolled in the Journalism Dept at Boston University. I teach all of these great young people in a special class for the new students from overseas.


As you can see, they were really dialed in and asked great questions.


I think quite a few of them were perplexed by Obama’s disappointing performance (but were too polite to dump on him!).

Note to academic advisers: tell your students not to take classes with professors whose eyes are shut.

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