W. Joseph Campbell

The Internet’s uneven capacity to expose media fakes

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on July 30, 2012 at 10:35 am

Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the online magazine Salon, hailed yesterday the corrective capacity of the Internet, noting how quickly a purported column by Bill Keller, one-time executive editor of the New York Times, was exposed over the weekend as an imaginative fake.

In pressing the argument, though, Greenwald offered up a hoary media myth that has survived quite well in the age of the Internet.

Greenwald wrote: “For anyone who still believes that traditional journalism is inherently more reliable than the Internet, just … compare the duration and seriousness of the frauds and fakes enabled by the model of traditional journalism.

“Long before the Internet — in 1938 — a dramatized radio broadcast by Orson Wells [sic] (“The War of the Worlds”) of Martians landing on Earth spawned mass panic.”

The notion that The War of the Worlds radio dramatization set off “mass panic” is a delicious tale.

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, it’s also a tenacious media-driven myth “that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

I point out that “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension.”

Some people who listened to the show in 1938 were frightened or disturbed by what they heard. But there is no evidence their fright rose to anything approaching “mass panic” or nationwide hysteria.

Indeed, most listeners recognized Welles’ program for what it was— an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.

But newspaper reports the following day advanced the notion that “mass panic” had swept the country.

“These reports,” I point out, “were almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.”

But newspapers in 1938 “simply had no reliable way of testing or ascertaining the validity of the sweeping claims they made about the radio show,” I write.

Nonetheless, the purported “panic-broadcast” offered U.S. newspapers “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” I write.

The overwhelmingly negative commentary in the American press, helped frame and solidify the erroneous impression that The War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria.

The debunking of the myth is told not only in Getting It WrongI’ve blogged about the dubious “panic broadcast,” too, as posts here, here, here, and here indicate. I’ve also written about The War of the Worlds myth for the BBC online. Others have discussed the myth in blog posts as well, notably Michael Socolow in a fine dissection in 2008.

So why does the myth live on in the digital age? Why is it resistant to the Internet’s capacity, which Greenwald extols, to detect errors and swiftly banish them?

Obviously, the notion of the “panic broadcast” became entrenched in media lore long before the digital age. Indeed, it began taking dimension the day after Welles’ clever show.

Once a myth becomes thoroughly entrenched, it may be beyond the Internet’s power ever  to dismantle. (See also, William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain; the supposed “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, and the misleading dominant narrative of Watergate.)

What’s more, the notion that tens of thousands of Americans were abruptly pitched into “mass panic” one night long ago remains a perversely appealing and irresistible tale. Its retelling affirms in a way the reassuring view that Americans these days are hardly the gullible rubes their ancestors were, back when broadcast media was emergent.

The mythical “panic broadcast” also offers a timeless anecdote with which to bash the media. The tale, after all, does suggest that when circumstances are just so, the media can spread fear and disruption, profoundly and unexpectedly.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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