Jonathan Zimmerman: Media Shouldn't Dismiss Value of Romney, Obama Presidential Debate

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

In 1960, on the eve of the first televised Presidential debates in United States history, America’s leading newspaper launched a pre-emptive attack on them. Pitting Vice-President Richard Nixon against his telegenic opponent, John F. Kennedy, the debates would appeal to voters “who are influenced not so much by logic and reason as by emotional, illogical factors,” the New York Times warned. “The fear is that they will not discuss the issues as much as put on a show.”

Afterwards, most journalists sounded a similar theme: The debates were hollow and superficial, highlighting Kennedy’s youthful good looks – and Nixon’s sweaty jowls – instead of substantive political matters. But voters told a very different story. “I learned more about what each man stands for in an hour than I have in two months of reading the papers,” one Detroit viewer said.

In other words, presidential debates are educational. The voters know it, and the statistics show it. But somebody forgot to tell our news organizations, which continue to dismiss the real value of the debates....

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