Veteran journalists discuss ‘great debates’

To mark the 50th anniversary of the first televised presidential debate between candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, “The Kalb Report” series devoted its Tuesday night show to discussing the history and future of presidential debates with some of the leading members of the journalism world.

The program featured CBS News’ Bob Schieffer; veteran Washington reporter and participant in the first presidential debate Sander Vanocur; and members of the Commission on Presidential Debates Mike McCurry and Janet Brown. All four participants discussed their involvement with debates throughout the past 50 years in front of an overflowing audience at the National Press Club.

“Who would have thought that Sandy Vanocur was a bigger draw than Katie Couric,” joked Marvin Kalb, the host of the program, which is produced by GW’s Global Media Institute. Couric was a guest on “The Kalb Report” in 2007.

Vanocur, who was a questioner at the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon, recalled the studio clearing out within 15 minutes of the end of the debate. He said that, despite having a significant historical context today, there was no initial analysis of the debate at the time because no one had witnessed a televised event like this before.

Historians now believe the debate was incredibly influential in swaying public opinion in favor of Kennedy. The panelists discussed how those who watched Kennedy on television saw a composed and tan young man, while Nixon looked distressed and sweaty in a light gray suit that looked washed out in front of the gray background of the stage.

“People want a president that looks like they can handle a crisis,” Schieffer said, in regard to the role appearance now plays in the election process. “Americans are smart when it comes to making decisions.”

With technology growing and changing at a rapid pace, and the media turning more toward the Internet, the panelists said that debates can now be dissected and viewed all over the U.S. and the world instantaneously.

“Debates have become one of the signature events in the public’s voting decision,” McCurry said about the importance of debates and the public access to them. “Technology enhances the experience for the voter of who to elect, especially since the Internet is so interactive.”

The panelists disagreed, however, on whether or not social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will make the role of journalists in future political debates obsolete.

Vanocur said he hopes that journalists will no longer be a part of presidential debates, saying that the people should be the ones to ask the questions during presidential candidates.

Yet Schieffer – who has moderated presidential debates in the past – said he thinks there will always be the need for journalists to be the gatekeepers.

GW students, many of whom were able to receive free tickets from professors in classes at the School of Media and Public Affairs, said that the comments of the panelists were directly related to how young people view the debates.

“Our generation is based on social media and it has shaped how we now view everything,” said junior Madison Cooke. “It has definitely made the younger generations more politically active and aware.”

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