The Kennedy-Nixon Debates - Political Speech on TV

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 40 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography



I Introduction

II What is a debate?

III Political debates and the communication process

IV On the subject of 'persuasive' language

V Setting up a debate on TV

VI Evaluation of the visuals

VII Evaluation of what is audible

VIII Ear vs. Eye – A conclusion

IX Appendix – Opening statements

X References

I Introduction

The following coursework deals with the first Kennedy – Nixon debate that was broadcast live on television, on September 26th 1960. In its first part it will concentrate on the question of what constitutes a debate and how it can be contrasted with other types of conversation like discussion or arguement. Especially political speech has always been reproached for ambigious language or persuasive usage to deceive the listener. Thus, the coursework will digress a bit to investigate the matter a bit further before starting to juxtapose the video material of the television debate – important terminology shall be introduced beforehand – and the speeches as such in their raw material.

At the end of the coursework you will find a DVD attached that shows the first television debate of Kennedy and Nixon. As several pictures of this debate are included in this coursework, I will quickly explain how to find them on the DVD.

The DVD contains two chapters with 4 tracks each. The tracks, however, are not as important as the chapters since the counter starts again at 0:00:00 as soon as the second chapter starts. The entire DVD has an approximate running time of 30 minutes, 15 minutes for each chapter. Thus, referring to a specific point in the video material, I simply put down the time-code where to find it, for instance 0:12:23, which means 12 minutes and 23 seconds in the first chapter, while 0:12:23 [2] refers to the same time-code but in the second chapter, as indicated by the number in brackets.

II What is a debate?

At first, an interesting fact, that has to be taken into account, is that while the English speaking world prefers the term ‘television debate’ the German language prefers to translate the very same thing as ‘Fernsehdiskussion’, a fact that naturally stirs up curiosity in terms of the distinction between a ‘debate’ and a ‘discussion’. Both terms are available in both aforementioned languages and I deem it a good starting point to shed some light on terminology. The Rhymezone (www.rhymezone.com) offers the following synonyms for the term ‘debate’:

argue, consider, contend, deliberate, disputation, fence, moot, public debate, turn over.

Of special interest here is, that the expression ‘public debate’ is mentioned and described as the following:

the formal presentation of and opposition to a stated proposition (usually followed by a vote).

The Collins English Thesaurus, to bring in a second source, names ‘discuss’, ‘argue’ and ‘dispute’ as main synonyms. In my opinion the closest two words to be eventually comparable are ‘to debate’ and ‘to discuss’. The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary gives the following information:

to discuss: to talk or write about sth

to debate about sth: have a debate about sth, discuss sth

debate: formal argument or discussion of a queston, eg at a public meeting or in Parliament, with two or more opposing speakers, and often ending in a vote

The main distinction therefore between a discussion and a debate is that the former is an integral part of the latter, whereas the latter one ends in a vote in favour of one of the contestants.

III Political debates and the communication process

The view that political debates on TV are not merely ‘debates on TV’ is widely spread, German analysis (referring to programmes like Deutschland vor der Wahl or Bonner Runde) (see Holly/Püschel/Kühn 1986 in Petter-Zimmer 1990) even stresses the fact of the propaganda character of such programmes. There are many views on what the main objective of such a programme is. First of all, as Weiß argues (see Petter-Zimmer:11), politic debates can be of use for politicians to present themselves to a wide audience with possible voters. In that sense the politicians may be the personified symbol of a voting decision, who use the medium TV for optimal representation. On the other hand, Holly/Püschel/Kühn (see Petter-Zimmer:11) argue that debates on TV are staged propaganda. Thirdly, since the debate takes place in a medium which was invented to entertain people, the question arises if political debates are just a part of the showbusiness machinery.

A factor that is undoubtly important is the relevance of the communication process for the public, what Diekmann (see Petter-Zimmer:11) calls “trialogic communication”, because the two people involved in the debate do not only talk to each other, but also to the live audience in the studio and the people in front of their TV-sets. The statements being said do not only have various audiences but are often intentionally addressed twofold.

The reproach of a ‘staged’ debate is reinforced by politicians propagating the debating factor of the discussion, as numerous meta-communicative statements prove (see Petter-Zimmer:12). There were incidents where politicians accused the opponent during the debate of reading off a paper, which stands in stark contrast to the definition of a debate, in which it is presumed, as has been said, that no campaigning takes place, but a profound argumentation about a certain subject. The ‘rule’, thus, of a debate could be formulated as the following:

To discuss means being open-minded towards the arguments of the contestant (see Petter-Zimmer:13).

That the political debaters endeavour to keep up appearances of a discussion with a mutual exchange of who has the better arguments and avoid addressing the actual addressees, namely the audience and the voters, seems to be in the interest of all participating members in the communication process. Therefore, this form of a debate comes to the two political opponents’ advantage, because it grants them to modify the intentional impact of their speech, which is actually aimed for the public, and may be arranged to have more effect. For the television station it comes as an advantge, because they fullfil their obligation to deliver relevant information and lastly the viewer does not see his part in the “trialogic communication process”. He is somewhat detached from what is going on on-screen and only fullfils his part in the ‘triangle’ as secondary participant, namely as viewer (see Petter-Zimmer:13).

Surveys have been done on the subject of television debates, again initiated by Holly/Püschel/Kühn (see Petter-Zimmer:23), assigning a double frame to television debates with means of propaganda, one as a primary frame of the situation, e.g. advertising politics, which is superimposed or transformed by the secondary frame, the one of the discussion. As a consequence, there are also two different sorts of addressees. Within the first frame would be the live audience in the studio, and within the second frame are the fellow contestants.

For the sake of propaganda politicians use all kinds of speech acts to legitimate or advertise themselves and against the other debaters. These speech acts can include assessments, political views, requests or promises. These speech acts are embedded in sequences of arguments and counter-arguments, which on the other hand are typical for the kind of debate. The speech acts, thus, function within the secondary frame so that the political advertisement happens casually, or ‘by the way’ (see Petter-Zimmer:24).

Politicians, therefore, have a twofold aim (see Holly/Kühn/Püschel 1989:6), to legitimately advocate and advertise themselves and their point of view on the one hand, and obviously to hide the fact that any sort of advertising is taking place on the other. That is the reason why they are trying to give the impression as if they were having a debate. The medium TV is the most desired ‘stage’ for politicians because of its range, reaching all different sorts of target groups (Holly/Kühn/Püschel 1989:2).

This underlines what the public complains about: Politicians do not tell the truth and the only thing they care for is to get more votes than their opponents.

IV On the subject of ‘persuasive’ language

The term ‚persuasive’ in connection with political debates is not meant depreciative (Dieckmann:139). It is always a matter of interpretation as to connect what is being said with positive connotated expressions such as ‘inform’, ‘explain’, ‘expound’, ‘convince’ or with negative connotated terms like ‘manipulate’, ‘lie’, ‘deceive’ and ‘persuade’. The side we think the speech is lurching to is due to personal interpretation.

Thus, ‘persuasive’ language most literally means ‘to find consent among the public’, and it doesn’t say anything about the means, whether positive or negative expressions are applied. Therefore it is impossible to juxtapose ‘persuasion’ with ‘information’. There are informing speech acts that do not intend to be persuasive, scientist claim to speak like that, although Dieckmann (1981:140) is of the opinion that there can’t be ‘persuation’ without informing elements. The question is only if the given information is true or not. Persuation per se is not typical for political speeches, it is similarly prevalent in advertising, public relations and everyday speech. Persuation, therefore, is a general function of speech.

V Setting up a debate on TV

In order to evaluate the visual aspects of the debate in question I reckon it valuable to start off with an introductory explanation of how the debate is set up and for that reason which effect it produces on the audience. Since we are dealing with the medium television, this provides reason enough to cover the basics of visual, or better saying on-screen composition, for a better understanding why certain shots are taken. The choice of composition on TV, as it should be clear, is not arbitrary but a highly crafted joint work of different profession, all working towards one goal, to deliver a professional show on TV. Involved are many professions, including director, camera man, producer and many other artists responsible for make-up, set-design or lights.

The normal set-up for a TV interview can be seen on the following picture (Armer:296), which also resembles very closely the set-up of the debate of Kennedy and Nixon, including three cameras. The only thing different in the Kennedy debate is that we have three people ‘on stage’, and not only two, as in a normal interview. We could say that a television debate is a special form of interview, with the interviewer taking the role of a mediator between two competing parties. Camera 2 gives the audience the overview over the whole setting, while cameras 1 and 3 are responsible to capture close-up shots of all participants on stage, mostly the two opponents on either end of the stage.

illustration not visible in this excerpt


As can be seen in the following screenshot the set-up in the actual Kennedy-Nixon-debate is very much the same as in Armer’s theory. The camera sending the given picture is camera 2, going back from the scene, signaling detachment from the previous programme and the audience, giving way to see the set-up off-stage, most importantly the two other cameras 1 and 3.

Throughout the debate it became apparent that this camera set-up had been used unmodified since the interviewers from the different news stations had been seated in a very inconvenient position where the cameras couldn’t see their faces. The interviewers, that were only seen from behind, therefore, had to turn around to talk into the camera.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

0:14:18 [2]

In the world of film and television there is a certain terminology for expressing what can be seen on screen, what is shown by the camera. These shots or angles are fairly easy to understand and will be adequately demonstrated by the following illustration (Katz:170).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Normally, the camera goes from far to near, to give an overview of ‘the scene’ and its ‘participants’, before going to show the ‘action’ in close-up. Most of the time the two runners for presidency are shown in close-up, where their heads are the only part of their bodies visible to the viewers who follow the debate in front of their TV-set. As will be explained later, this close-up angle is chosen to give the impression of having the person on TV right in front of oneself.

Camera 2, therefore, is in charge to show the setting, to move forwards or backwards (as it does at the end of the debate) or to pan to left or right to capture two people in total, or one of the opponents standing at his lecturn. Cameras 1 and 3 almost exclusively give close-ups of the faces of Kennedy and Nixon in order to let them take their effect on the audience.



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University of Frankfurt (Main)
Kennedy-Nixon Debates Political Speech Portraits Presidents



Title: The Kennedy-Nixon Debates - Political Speech on TV