Lessons from 1960

Even then, paper wasn't fab. The historic online presidential debates slated for the latter portion of this year have already invited comparisons to the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, when the relatively new medium of television was used to great advantage by the young JFK. This time the traditional panel of journalists, whose job it is to ask the candidates tough questions, will be augmented by a considerably larger panel of inquisitors comprised of people like you. Hosted by PBS' Charlie Rose and carried on the Web sites of Yahoo, The Huffington Post, and Slate, these online-only debates will make possible an unprecedented level of participation by The People Formerly Known as the Audience.

While the new format isn't likely to entirely replace the old before the next election, the e-writing is on the wall, and it's only a matter of time. To amplify a phrase from 2004 article by Liette Gidlow, Associate Professor of History at Bowling Green State University, adapting to the new medium is essential.

Television remains a crucial part of the electoral process, but its preeminence is being challenged for the first time by a new medium, the Internet. While presidential candidates have used the Internet in one form or another since 1992, in 2004 it was used in new ways and with new power as, for example, when Democratic primary contender Howard Dean discovered its potential for raising large sums of campaign money by soliciting small amounts from many donors. While television has hardly receded from the political scene, the Kennedy experience offers a powerful indicator of the future of politics: In the next generation, as in the last, the candidates who best succeed in adapting to the new medium are likely to be the most successful.

If the 1960 radio audience perceived Nixon as the winner while those who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy the victor, it will be interesting to see if there's a similar disparity between new media and old this time around.

While I continue to believe that brain implants are the most elegant solution to our political afflictions, this is a step in the right direction. Real-time control of our politicians is likely to remain as elusive as world peace, but that doesn't mean we should abandon the idea entirely.


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