The late Walter Lippmann, reflecting upon the 1960 debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, said they were so significant to the political process that he saw no way they would not become a permanent part of the political process.1 Despite his assessment, sixteen years passed before such debates occurred again.
Today, two conditions of American society make the presidential debates imperative. First, the public gets most of its information via television. Televised debates offer a dramatic and enlightening presentation which the voters may compare and contrast with the political advertisements and brief news clips. In fact, if the television coverage of candidates consists only of spots and news clips, it is incomplete, reflecting only the images fabricated by the candidates' media advisers or the conduct of the candidate in a controlled situation without spontaneity. That coverage would also preclude the face-to-face meeting of candidates which is one of the most desirable elements of the debates. Second, the media and American politics are inextricably joined. The political process has been so accelerated and its impact so widely extended by the media that it is virtually impossible for a candidate to wage a successful campaign without television.
The Ford-Carter "Great Debates" are acknowledged by both sides to have been the essential factor in the 1976 campaign. It was estimated that about a quarter billion people watched those debates____________________