W. Joseph Campbell

Final thoughts on a flawed PBS documentary

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on November 9, 2013 at 1:51 pm

It’s testimony to the program’s flaws and tedium that public discussion about the PBS “American Experience” documentary largely faded away within days if not hours after it was broadcast. The documentary revisited the famous radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds which aired 75 years ago and told of Martians mounting lethal attack on the United States.

Hyping the reaction

Did not

So realistic was the radio show that it supposedly pitched tens of thousands of listeners into panic and mass hysteria.

That, of course, makes for a timeless story, and  is a critical reason why the program is recalled and discussed unlike any other radio show. But the reports of panic and hysteria loosed by the radio show were grossly exaggerated by the newspapers of the day. As I discuss in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, whatever fear the program may have stirred, it did not rise to the level of nationwide panic and hysteria.

Eleven days ago, PBS revisited The War of the Worlds dramatization in a documentary notable for failing to confront the most important and intriguing questions about radio program: Did it set off panicked reactions across the country when it aired on October 30, 1938? If not, why is it so widely believed that it had such powerful and immediate effects?

In ducking those central questions, the documentary was an opportunity lost.

The PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, said as much in a column last week, saying he was “in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

The PBS documentary prompted other criticism, too — including its use of cheesy recreated dialog spoken by actors clad in period clothing.

One of the actors played the part of a “Sylvia Holmes” from Newark, New Jersey, who supposedly was pitched into panic by The War of the Worlds radio show. The documentary, however, did not disclose that “Sylvia Holmes” was a pseudonymous character, whose “remarks” were taken from The Invasion From Mars, a flawed book about the radio show published in 1940. (That book intentionally obscured the identities of “Holmes” and other interview subjects.)

As I pointed out at Media Myth Alert last week, PBS editorial standards say that its programming content “should embrace the highest commitment to excellence, professionalism, intellectual honesty and transparency. In its news and information content, accuracy should be the cornerstone.”

Offering up a pseudonymous character and failing to identify her as such seemed to skirt those standards.

'Sylvia Holmes'

The pseudonymous ‘Sylvia Holmes’

Getler in a column yesterday said he didn’t think so. “The producers could have somehow pointed out that Sylvia Holmes was not a real name,” he wrote, adding:

“But I don’t view this as a war crime or as a spiritual violation of PBS standards. Whatever her real name, she was a real person.”

It’s sloppy, though. It’s slyly misleading, and it’s hardly in keeping with a commitment to transparency. As such, it’s another dent in a documentary that was full of them.

Getler reiterated in his column yesterday that the documentary’s “biggest flaw was failing to deal more thoroughly with the role that the press played after the broadcast in suggesting there was more panic than was actually the case. That, in my view, would have contributed to a more contextual public understanding of what actually happened in 1938.”

That’s quite true. But the documentary was more deeply flawed than that. Its makers, after all, ignored recent research that has impugned the notion The War of the Worlds program stirred mass panic.

And in dodging the central questions of The War of the Worlds program, the documentary ended up confused and meandering, not knowing for sure what it was supposed to do. So it turned out to be part tribute to the radio program; part tribute to the radio show’s director and star, Orson Welles;  part rumination about America of the late 1930s, and part digression about life on Mars.

At least it won’t be regarded as a definitive treatment about what was a clever, memorable, and mythical radio dramatization.

WJC

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