There was a fine turnout today for my book talk at the Library of Congress, the splendid institution where I have done a great deal of research over the past 12 years or so.
Two of the myths discussed possess a strong Washington, D.C., connections; the third was timely in a seasonal, late-October sort of way. Specifically, I discussed:
- The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: That is, the notion that the investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.
- The so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968: The belief President Lyndon Johnson realized the Vietnam Was was unwinnable following a dire, on-air assessment by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Southeast Asia.
- The War of the Worlds radio dramatization: The widely held view that Orson Welles’ clever adaptation of The War of the Worlds, a science fiction thriller about a deadly Martian invasion of Earth, touched widespread panic and mass hysteria on Halloween Even 1938.
The anniversary of Welles’ War of Worlds broadcast is Saturday.
In my talk at the Library of Congress, I pointed out how improbable it was that a radio show–even one as inspired as Welles’ adaptation–could have had the effect of sending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of listeners into the streets in panic and hysteria.
There were many internal clues for listeners signaling that the show was just that–a radio show.
It aired Sundays, from 8-9 p.m., Eastern time, on CBS–in the usual time slot for Welles’ program, which he called the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Welles was the show’s star and director, and his distinctive voice would have been familiar to many listeners that long ago October night.
What’s more, events described in the show moved far too rapidly to be plausible or believable. In less than 30 minutes, for example, the Martians blasted off from their planet, traveled millions of miles to Earth, landed in rural New Jersey, set up lethal heat rays, wiped out units of American soldiers, and began a destructive march on New York City.
As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “Claims that the broadcast fomented mass panic and hysteria were dramatically overstated” by daily newspapers the following day.
Close reading of the contemporaneous newspaper accounts made it clear that they based their characterizations of widespread turmoil on relatively small numbers of anecdotal cases of people who were frightened or upset. These anecdotes, I write, “typically were not of broad scale but were small-bore. They described agitation and odd behavior among individuals, their families, or neighbors.”
But by no means did these accounts suggest fright that night reached the level of nationwide panic and mass hysteria.
For newspapers, however, the notion that The War of the Worlds show had caused great panic and alarm represented an irresistible opportunity to bash radio as an unreliable, untrustworthy upstart medium. And newspapers did so in overwhelmingly negative editorial commentary.
“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities,” the New York Times declared about the show. “It has not mastered itself or the material it uses. It does many things which the newspapers learned long ago not to do, such as mixing its news and advertising.”
Such criticism was more than mildly self-serving. After all, radio by 1938 had become an increasingly important rival source for news, information, and advertising.
And that negative commentary helped to lock into place the mistaken notion that the radio show about Martian invaders had sown panic and hysteria across the country.
My talk was sponsored by the Library’s Center for the Book, which is directed by John Y. Cole. Library stalwarts in attendance today included Terri Sierra, Mark Sweeney, Georgia Higley, and G. Travis Westly.
Recent and related: