This column is the first of two parts. — Editor
When asked which news source was most influential, John F. Kennedy didn’t hesitate.
He was a Time magazine man — even before becoming its “Man of the Year” for 1961. Yet, given his wow factor during the 1960 debates, he might have mentioned TV Guide as well.
Richard Nixon, on the other hand, failed to grasp television as key to what PR types call “impression management.” He considered the first televised debates just another campaign event, while Kennedy was careful to exploit the prime-time coverage to his advantage.
Nixon, already wan from a painful knee injury and staph infection, applied a stark white Shave Stick instead of makeup to cover his five o’clock shadow. He chose a suit that blended into the background. Moreover, he hadn’t made the effort to manage his chronically sweaty upper lip.
JFK, however, had gotten a good night’s sleep. Not only did he spend his prep week aboard his yacht — bronzing his face into a healthy-looking glow — but, to keep from boring the audience as just another talking head, revved up his already energetic delivery to warp speed.
It was the perfect time for UCLA’s Paul Rosenthal to study credibility. By 1960, advertisers were abandoning the formerly dominant medium of radio for the boob tube. While the unseen Nixon won three out of the four debates with radio listeners, the vibrant Kennedy achieved an equal record on the tube. However, it was TV viewers who would elect the next president.
Rosenthal predicted that television would significantly alter politics — and not for the better. Not only would voters subsequently cast ballots on the basis of image rather than issues, but only candidates with millions to spend on political spots would come out ahead during the Television Age. No longer would the best man win. It was the man who looked best on the small screen.
Despite a ringing endorsement from JFK, such newsweeklies as Time and Newsweek couldn’t compete — circulation-wise — with a paperback-sized periodical called TV Guide.
Launched as a national publication in April 1953, TV Guide cost a paltry 15 cents, was readily available at the grocery store checkout lane and featured television-related news, celebrity interviews, gossip, film reviews and a most popular crossword.
Apparently, during the ’50s, the public was less interested in global news (Korea) than in the celebrities appearing weekly in their living rooms. TV Guide’s first issue featured Lucille Ball’s newborn son, Desi Arnaz, Jr., on the cover.
In fact, her “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” episode beat out all prior broadcast viewing records. On Jan. 19, 1953, between 68 and 75 percent of American families were glued to CBS.
In 1973, a very media-savvy attorney found himself facing off, David-style, against the Nixon administration. His testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Watergate was going to be contradicted by at least four heavyweight Goliaths — H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman, John N. Mitchell and Richard Nixon. If anybody needed to do some heavy-duty impression management, it was John Dean.
Dean did leak his testimony to Newsweek and JFK’s favorite, Time, weeks before his appearance at the hearings. While his tactic didn’t directly shape public opinion, it did cause those who regularly devoured newsweeklies or even newspapers inspired by the newsweeklies, to find his words even more credible. Why? They were being exposed to his testimony for the second time.
Unlike his boss Nixon, Dean realized he had to please the television camera. The Watergate Hearings were broadcast live on commercial channels during the day and replayed on PBS at night. While a few fans whined about missing their soap operas, 85 percent of U.S. households were entranced by the real-life melodrama.
Instead of being flanked by his attorneys, Dean insisted on sitting alone. He intended to ratchet up his credibility as the lone voice speaking truth to power. He exchanged his contact lenses for more sober looking horn-rimmed glasses.
He insisted his wife Maureen be stationed where the occasional camera pan would telegraph to the world — this beautiful woman was standing by her man. Dean so obsessively attended to impression management details that when Maureen decided to don a stylish turban, he removed it, admonishing “that just won’t play with Middle America.”
Now with the Internet dominating the media, I wonder if Kennedy or Dean would employ social networking to enhance their respective images.
If even Pope Benedict felt compelled to tweet, would JFK, like President Obama, maintain a Facebook page? It wouldn’t be all that difficult. JFK could consult Bartlett’s and post his own quotations as memes.
How about “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present, are certain to miss the future.” Great advice — even without the cuddly kitten, right?