‘Image matters’ to viewers of debates

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Ever since images of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were beamed into America’s living rooms in 1960, televised presidential debates have offered up the candidates’ every glance, head nod, smile and even drop of sweat for all the world to scrutinize.

“Image matters and, for better or for worse, what we see and how the candidates comport themselves means something and tells us something,” said Charlton McIlwain, associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, during an event at the Newseum yesterday. McIlwain and four other panelists joined the First Amendment Center’s Gene Policinski for the panel discussion “Beyond wins & losses: citizen’s guide to 2012 presidential debates.”

The candidates’ mannerisms and how they respond to one another, McIlwain said, are “a big part of, overall, being able to tell who these candidates are, how they react under pressure, (and) which one of them looks sort of more presidential in terms of command of the facts and information.”

Kathryn Olson, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the debates give the public an opportunity to gauge how well the candidates embody “democratic leadership.”

“As Americans, we have this unusual expectation or set of conflicting expectations that our president be democratic or be ordinary, someone we can relate to, who would react like we would, someone who will subordinate him- or herself to the public will and be a responsive servant,” Olson said. But at the same time, she said, we also want “someone who is ‘leaderly’ or at the top of the hierarchy, comfortable with power, extraordinary, somebody who can take charge of public problems rather than just take orders.”

“Those two things have to come in a very delicate balance,” she added.

Standing up under this type of public scrutiny, however, can prove challenging, said veteran journalist Sander Vanocur, who participated in the first televised presidential debate in 1960.

“It is very rare for someone to look good on television unless there is massive preparation,” Vanocur said. “There are no longer any two news cycles a day, morning and evening. It’s 24 hours a day. So it’s very difficult for a politician or anyone else to look absolutely perfect because the television camera is neutral — it shows good and bad and indifferent.”

The potential repercussions for not appearing perfect can lead candidates to focus on surviving, rather than winning, debates, panelists said.

“The risk factor is so high that not losing is sometimes more important than winning,” Olson said.

Panelist J. Michael Hogan, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University, agreed, saying, “The gaffe is the headline.”

How a candidate responds to those things that don’t go perfectly — such as an ill-phrased or awkward question from a member of the public — can be enlightening for voters, said journalist Annie Groer.

“Any kind of window that we get even into their thought processes when they are confronted with a … left-field question really does help us understand who they are,” she said.

Voters also can learn from how the presidential contenders judge and respond to each other, Groer said.

“One of the issues this year … will be how each candidate hews to his version of the truth and what the other candidate says,” she said. “How do they call each other on what (comedian and TV host) Stephen Colbert would call ‘truthiness’?”

Moderator Gene Policinki, executive director of the First Amendment Center, encouraged the audience “to follow the debates” — the first of which is tomorrow — and to “go beyond the measure of simply who won and who lost.”

“In the First Amendment’s provision for free press, free speech, freedom of faith and the right of assembly and petition, the Founders presupposed an informed electorate and an electorate which is participatory, not sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “Get involved.”

The program was sponsored by the National Communication Association in partnership with the First Amendment Center.

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