Milestone Media Moments From Over a Half Century of Presidential Elections

Bob Schieffer reflects on memorable battles

Political kingmakers have long known the power and influence of the media when it comes to picking a president. From newspapers to radio, from TV to the web, media and politics have coexisted—often uncomfortably, but sometimes too comfortably—for the past century.

"I have this theory," said legendary newsman Bob Schieffer. "The most successful politicians are the ones who have figured out how to best use the media to their advantage."

Schieffer, who's covered every convention since 1968, spoke with Adweek during the Democratic National Convention—which he was covering for CBS News—in Philadelphia last week.

"The founders were all great writers, and they were able to communicate what this new country was going to be," Schieffer said. "Then along came Franklin Roosevelt, who used radio with the fireside chats. Now we're into this social age. And you have to give Donald Trump some credit. He has figured out how to use Twitter very effectively."

Here's a look back at some of the biggest media moments of the past half century of presidential elections:

Kennedy-Nixon debates

Seventy million people are estimated to have watched the first political debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy on Sept. 26, 1960. That's almost 20 million more people than the audience for the series finale of Friends 44 years later. On election night, Kennedy vs. Nixon was the highest-rated election ever on TV with a 65.7 rating on ABC, CBS and NBC. That's higher than the 60.2 rating for the finale of M*A*S*H in 1983 and a higher rating than any Super Bowl to date.

"Jack Kennedy really understood the power of live TV," said Schieffer.

The first Kennedy-Nixon debate drew 70 million viewers.

Unrest at the conventions

"In 1968 when I went to my first convention, you got your news from your local newspaper and three local newscasts," said Schieffer of the year before he joined CBS News. One of the most memorable convention moments was captured on live TV that summer when CBS News correspondent Dan Rather was roughed up as he was trying to interview a delegate from Georgia and was escorted out of the International Amphitheatre in Chicago during a tumultuous DNC.


Cable news debuts

The 1980 election was the first for the original cable news network, CNN, which was available in just 1.7 million homes at launch but is now found in more than 97 million households. On election night, 37.1 million households tuned in to ABC, CBS and NBC as Ronald Reagan won the first of his two terms by defeating Jimmy Carter.

Dole leads to a dull election

In August of 1996, at the dawn of the internet, the Pew Research Center took a poll and found 73 percent of respondents called that year's Bill Clinton-Bob Dole election dull. That was reflected on election night as just 24.9 million households turned in to NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN. Fox News and MSNBC went on the air a few months earlier, but Nielsen didn't publicly rate those networks because their carriage was still small.

The never-ending election

Tom Brokaw declared the news media didn't just have egg on their faces, "we have an omelet all over our suits" after making botched calls first for Al Gore and then for George W. Bush. The election went unresolved for 36 days as TV news media raced from Tennessee, Al Gore's headquarters, and Texas, headquarters for George W. Bush, to Florida for the recount, and Washington, D.C. where the U.S. Supreme Court determined the winner. The unresolved election drove people to TV as 40.9 million households watched on seven different commercial TV networks.

The social media election

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected with nearly 70 percent of the vote among Americans under age 25—the highest percentage since U.S. exit polling began in 1976. 71.5 million viewers watched the historic 2008 election on 14 TV networks as measured by Nielsen.

"Social media has changed the whole ballgame," Schieffer said. "You get almost instant reaction to everything. Sometimes it's right. Sometimes it's wrong. We don't fully understand it. But it's certainly a powerful force."