I was working at KPFA on the night of September 26th, 1960, when Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy faced off in the first televised presidential debate. Kennedy was an appealing young man with a vision of public service. He seemed to represent the idealism of the young. He also represented the belligerent policies of the Cold War. Kennedy was a strident anti-communist, committed to building up our military, expanding our nuclear weapons, testing them above ground and he seemed to favor an adventurist foreign policy.
Those of us who listened to the debate on radio agreed that Nixon had overwhelmed the young Massachusetts senator. The next day we learned that most of the country, that had watched the debate on television, thought it was all over for Nixon. The bright lights that television required in those days and Nixon’s indifference to his looks (he hadn’t bothered to shave just before the show and he refused makeup) ruined him. When we watched the TV clips, we saw Nixon slumped in his chair, unshaven, sweating under the lights while Kennedy was cool, collected and eloquent. Visuals had become more important than substance. This first televised debate changed the future of American politics, requiring candidates to be telegenic and campaigns to raise huge amounts of money to buy TV time.
Kennedy was elected by a slim margin … a 120,000 votes. Much was made of the fact that he would be the first President born in the Twentieth Century and how much he appealed to young people. Some of us greeted his inauguration with trepidation.
Eisenhower in his farewell address had issued a warning three days before Kennedy was inaugurated: ”In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Eisenhower spoke on January 17th, 1961, the same day Patrice Lumumba, an African nationalist leader and the first elected president of the Congo, was killed in a coup engineered by the CIA. Eight days into office Kennedy approved a counterinsurgency strategy for South Vietnam. The French were about to be defeated at Dien Bien Phu. Kennedy sent in the first U.S. advisers in April. At about the same time. he authorized CIA pilots flying B-26 bombers to attack Cuban war planes, to soften Cuba up for an invasion.
The KPFA newsroom was a small room cluttered with desks, filing cabinets and tables strewn with papers. Two wire service machines chattered in a closet through a closed-door with glass windows. These relics of news room’s past were long gone by 2016, draining newsrooms of an adrenaline sound bed that underlay all our work. There is simply nothing like an old-fashioned wire machine ringing, one, two or three urgent bells and then beginning to type as a second machine lurches into action with its own bells and its own type pattern. As the second of the three bells rang we had the door open and were pulling the first lead. Cuban exiles had landed on Playa Giron in Cuba.
The wire service news reports and radio and television news shows told a narrative of instant success. The invaders were moving inland, the population was rising to support them and so on. We had done several programs on Cuba and Castro seemed to have wide support among most Cubans. We were suspicious and started to search for sources at the invasion site that we could trust.
Most radio and television stations got the AP Radio wire, a severely truncated version designed for short radio and TV announcements. We got both the AP “A Wire” and Reuters, a European news service, a rare luxury for a poor station, but one insisted on by Elsa. AP was carrying the success story, taken (it turned out later) from State Department press releases written before the invasion began. On Reuters we noticed a small item filed from Cuba by a reporter working for the Yugoslavian news agency, Tanjug.
Elsa tried to trace him down in Cuba without success, but we were able to get translated reports through Belgrade. Tanjug’s story was the opposite of the Associate Press. The invading force never got off the beaches. Of course, that story was true.
KPFA, so far as I know, was the only radio or television station in the United States that got it right.
It is a mystery to me, but United States’ media is never more gullible than when it comes to war. Consistently, each new war gets enthusiastic support from all media outlets, as they thoughtlessly read government hand-outs and interview government supporters.