W. Joseph Campbell

PBS set to embrace ‘mass hysteria’ myth in anniversary show on ‘War of Worlds’?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Television, War of the Worlds on May 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm
Welles and 'War of the Worlds'

Orson Welles and ‘War of the Worlds': No panic

PBS plans to air an “American Experience” program in October about the famous War of the Worlds radio adaptation, which starred Orson Welles and cleverly told of Earth’s invasion by Martians wielding deadly heat rays.

The PBS description sounds as if the program will embrace a hoary media-driven myth — that The War of the Worlds show of October 30, 1938, set off widespread panic and mass hysteria.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension.”

In overwhelming numbers, I write in referring to contemporaneous polling data, most listeners “recognized it for what it was — an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.”

But here’s the PBS summary of an hour-long “American Experience” program, to be aired October 29, on the eve of the radio show’s 75th anniversary:

“AMERICAN EXPERIENCE ‘War of the Worlds’ Orson Welles’ infamous radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds set off one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history 75 years ago. The film examines the elements that made America ripe for the hoax. Tuesday, October 29, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET.”

The reference to “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history” raises eyebrows — and commanded the attention of Media Myth Alert.

(Asked for details about the content of the “American Experience” show, Cara White, a spokeswoman, said by email: “We don’t have additional information at this time since the program isn’t premiering until October. But we should have more information closer to the broadcast.”)

The 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds may have produced fleeting, localized fright and confusion. But there’s no persuasive evidence that it stirred anything approaching panic of nationwide dimension.

This is more than an academic argument: Listener reaction to The War of the Worlds program in 1938 speaks to whether the media have the capacity to create powerful, immediate, and unnerving effects.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that “the notion that The War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in panic, is a 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’m not alone in my conclusions about The War of the Worlds program, an hour-long adaptation that aired on CBS radio.

Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on mass hysteria and social delusions, has noted there is scant evidence that many frightened listeners acted on their fears that night in 1938.

Michael J. Socolow wrote in a fine essay in 2008 that “panic was neither as widespread nor as serious as many have believed at the time or since.”

Socolow also noted:

“The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry” during or after the radio program.

Moreover, had Welles’ show “set off one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history,” the resulting turmoil and trauma certainly would have resulted in serious injuries and deaths, including suicides.

But none were linked to the program.

The erroneous notion that The War of the Worlds dramatization had convulsed the country in panic and mass hysteria certainly was afoot in 1938 — and for U.S. newspapers of the time, that misleading interpretation offered a delicious opportunity to assail an upstart rival medium, radio.

By the late 1930s, radio had become an important source for news and advertising, and American newspapers had, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “competitive incentives to denounce radio, and characterize it as irresponsible and unreliable.

“Many newspapers seized the chance to do with enthusiasm,” I note. “It was as an opportunity they could not fail to let pass.”

The New York Times, for example, declared in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio”:

“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses.”

The Times and other American newspapers in 1938 seemed eager to chastise radio. And their overwhelmingly negative commentary helped seal the lingering and erroneous view that The War of the Worlds dramatization set off panic and hysteria across the country.

Judging from its news release, PBS seems ready to embrace that media myth.

WJC

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