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The Great Debate: Style or Substance?

The moments we remember from political debates are embedded in our political folklore, from the knockout lines to the losing gaffes. But does media coverage often miss the real lessons they offer?

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The Great Debate: Style or Substance?

Produced by Erik German and Meral Agish
Original Release
September 25, 2016

The moments we remember from political debates are embedded in our political folklore, from the knockout lines to the losing gaffes. But does media coverage often miss the real lessons they offer?

The first presidential debate in 1960 was a creation of the television age, and it quickly entered its founding lore. We’re told those who saw the debate on TV favored the handsome, well made-up Kennedy.  Radio listeners, on the other hand, thought Nixon had won. Evidence supporting this story is shoddy — a mix of anecdote, assumptions and a debunked survey  – but the story continues to shape how we understand debates today.

Many historians say there is a misplaced focus on the ability of make-up – or other non-substantive aspects of performance – to deliver political victory, when debates have become one of our most important civic rituals, allowing glimpses into candidate’s character that comes from them defending their ideas in an unscripted, high-stakes environment.  But what impact has the changing media landscape had on debates? And what does that mean for this election?

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