W. Joseph Campbell

Memo to CJR: History lesson needed

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on November 16, 2018 at 1:47 pm

Columbia Journalism Review says it seeks to be “the intellectual leader in the rapidly changing world of journalism.”

If that’s the objective, then it ought to brush up on some history of the field.

McCarthy, red-baiting senator

An essay posted the other day at CJR’s online site embraces the decades-old media myth about the legendary Edward R. Murrow and his critical television report in March 1954 about the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy.

The journalism review’s thinly sourced essay purports to explore why Republicans hate the news media and says the seeds of such prejudice were planted when McCarthy began campaigning about communist infiltration of the federal government.

“The press dutifully gave McCarthy a platform for his populist conspiracy-mongering,” the essay declares, “until at last CBS’s Edward R. Murrow exposed his lies, in a program in 1954.”

Murrow exposed McCarthy’s lies?

No, it wasn’t Murrow.

Murrow took on McCarthy years after other journalists had directed searching and critical attention to the senator and his tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so.

The belated nature of Murrow’s critical program on McCarthy was underscored years later by Murrow’s friend and CBS colleague, Eric Sevareid, who noted that the report “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid also said: “The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

And as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, McCarthy had no more relentless critic in journalism than Drew Pearson, author of the syndicated muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.”

Pearson first took on McCarthy in February 1950, four years before Murrow’s show and shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign, and persisted in questioning the substance and accuracy of McCarthy’s accusations.

Pearson, attacked by a senator

McCarthy grew so unnerved by Pearson’s work that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950, in a brief but violent encounter in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. Then-senator Richard M. Nixon broke up the confrontation.

(In his memoir RN, Nixon quoted McCarthy as saying: “You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.”)

Shortly after the confrontation at the Sulgrave, McCarthy took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Pearson as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” a “sugar-coated voice of [Soviet] Russia,” and a “Moscow-directed character assassin.”

The senator also said: “It is up to the American people — and above all, up to the newspapermen who are buying his column and the radio stations that are carrying his broadcasts — to see that this voice of international communism is stilled.”

McCarthy aimed a threat at Adam Hat Stores Inc., principal sponsor of Pearson’s Sunday night radio program, declaring that “anyone who buys from a store that stocks an Adams [sic] hat is unknowingly contributing at least something to the cause of international communism by keeping this communist spokesman on the air.”

A week later, Adam Hat said it would not renew its sponsorship of Pearson’s program, citing “a planned change in advertising media for 1951.”

Pearson later claimed that losing the Adam Hat sponsorship cut his gross radio income to $100,000 from $250,000. “I suppose no one newspaperman suffered more economically than I did from Joe McCarthy,” he mused a few years later.

In September 1951 — two and a half years before Murrow’s program on McCarthy — the New York Post began publishing a raw and unflattering 17-part series about McCarthy. It was, the Post said, “the first comprehensive newspaper account of [McCarthy’s] curious public career.” As I noted in Getting It Wrong, the series “is seldom recalled in the historiography of the McCarthy period.”

The first installment pointed to the source of McCarthy’s power, stating:

“By constant practice he has learned that all one needs to defeat or at least immobilize an opponent is to charge that he is linked with the Soviet enemy or just suggest that he has been in the past, might be now, or could conceivably be linked in the future.”

The closing installment likened McCarthy to “a drunk at a party who was funny half an hour ago but now won’t go home. McCarthy is camped in America’s front room trying to impress everybody by singing all the dirty songs and using all the four-letter words he knows. The jokes are pointless, the songs unfunny, the profanity a bore.”

So by the time Murrow’s program aired in 1954, McCarthy had been pilloried in the press for years. Americans in 1954 weren’t exactly “waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them what a toxic threat the senator posed,” as I wrote in Getting It Wrong. “By then, McCarthy and his tactics were well-known and he had become a target of withering ridicule — a sign of diminished capacity to inspire dread.”

On the day Murrow’s half-hour program aired, former President Harry Truman was asked about reports of an anonymous telephoned threat against McCarthy’s life. Truman replied, saying: “We’d have no entertainment at all if they killed him.”

WJC

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Not so fast about that fading media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, War of the Worlds on November 10, 2018 at 5:57 pm

So there I was, waxing hopeful the other day that The War of the Worlds panic myth was fading away.

A passage in a commentary today in the New York Times rather dashes that optimism.

From today’s NYTimes

The myth has it that on the eve of Halloween in 1938, a Sunday night radio dramatization about Martians invading the eastern United States, a tale adapted from H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel, pitched Americans by the thousands into panic and mass hysteria.

And the Times’s commentary repeats the myth, stating: The “Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place.”

That all makes for a good story, but it’s thinly documented — as the Times itself made clear just last week. At the show’s 80th anniversary, the Times posted online a commentary that said the “stubbornly persistent narrative” about radio-induced panic and hysteria is “false.”

It’s too bad the Times did away with its “public editor”; I’d love to know what an in-house critic like Liz Spayd (who was dismissed when the position was abruptly scrapped) would say about such incoherence in the commentary section.

In any event, the notion the broadcast triggered panic and hysteria is a false narrative. There was no mass panic, no hysteria. And that conclusion comes from a variety of scholars who periodically over the past 25 years or so have considered the broadcast’s presumed effects and found them missing.

While some listeners that long ago night may have been briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the show’s audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized it for what it was — clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween. The program was aired on CBS radio in its familiar time slot and featured familiar voices, notably that of 23-year-old Orson Welles, the show’s director and star.

For American newspapers, though, the presumptive panic offered “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” as I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. Newspapers were eager to reprimand radio and their “overwhelmingly negative commentary helped solidify the notion that the War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria among Americans,” I wrote.

The Times participated in the dressing-down 80 years ago, saying in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio” that the medium “has not mastered itself or the material it uses. … In the broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ blood-curdling fiction was offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given and interwoven with convincing actualities. … Radio officials should have thought twice before mingling this new technique with fiction so terrifying.”

The story of nationwide panic quickly faded from the front pages in 1938, which surely wouldn’t have been the case had the program stirred nationwide turmoil: Such an extraordinary event would have generated follow-on newspaper reporting and commentary for days.

My recent optimism about the panic myth’s fading away was buoyed by the comparatively few naive references to the myth in the run-up to the 80th anniversary. “News reports credulously invoking the myth have seemed far fewer than in recent years,” I wrote, adding that I was hopeful about the myth’s dissolving in the face of repeated debunkings.

I also noted, “It may well be that no media myth ever dies completely away.” And I might well have closed the blog post there. Instead, I wrote:

“But it may be that ‘panic broadcast’ myth of The War of the Worlds will be that rare exception.”

Guess not.

WJC

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The fading of a media myth?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2018 at 8:08 am

Could it be that Halloween’s greatest media myth — the notion that a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds stirred widespread panic and mass hysteria — is fading away?

The question arises because in the run-up to Halloween, news reports credulously invoking the myth have seemed far fewer than in recent years. (See here and here for a couple of head-shaking exceptions.)

Orson Welles

The question is especially intriguing because tonight marks the 80th anniversary of what has been called the “panic broadcast.” It’s one of those round-number anniversaries that could be expected to bring fresh reminders that the hour-long radio show supposedly sent panic-stricken Americans into the streets across the country.

But the anniversary this year has brought comparatively few such naive references in the news media — certainly nothing akin to the PBS “American Experience” program that aired five years ago and embraced the dubious assumptions about the “panic broadcast.”

In a time of keen awareness about “fake news,” is The War of the Worlds media myth flickering out? Could it be that repeated debunkings over the years have finally taken hold?

Possibly.

Media Myth Alert — which was launched nine years ago with a post about The War of the Worlds — hopes so.

To be sure, the myth always has been something of a stretch.

It centered around the hour-long, Sunday night show on CBS radio called “Mercury Theatre on the Air” that starred 23-year-old Orson Welles. The program on October 30, 1938, was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic that was published in 1898.

Welles and his troupe made imaginative use of mock but urgent-sounding news bulletins to report that Martians wielding deadly heat rays had invaded rural New Jersey and were swiftly making their way to New York City. The broadcast supposedly was so vivid, fast-paced, and seemingly authoritative that Americans supposedly were scared out of their wits, believing the country had fallen under alien attack.

Chicago Herald Examiner about War of the Worlds broadcast

Chicago Herald Examiner front page, Halloween, 1938

That’s what many American newspapers reported the day afterward: Panic had gripped the country. Or, as the Washington Post asserted (without offering much evidence): “For an hour, hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation’s Capital and the Nation itself.”

But as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, newspaper accounts of radio-produced panic and hysteria “were almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.”

While some listeners to Welles’ show that night were briefly disturbed or frightened by what they heard, most of the audience, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the program for what it was — clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween.

For American newspapers, though, the purported panic offered “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” I wrote. Newspapers were eager to chide their broadcast rival, and the “overwhelmingly negative commentary helped solidify the notion that the War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria among Americans.”

For example, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and American declared that the program had caused hysteria that “was NATIONWIDE and literally MILLIONS OF PEOPLE understood the broadcast to be REAL.” It “goes without saying,” the Journal and American said in an editorial, “that if the [radio] industry, or irresponsible units within the industry, cannot guard against incidents of this nature … it will not long be free from more drastic forms of censorship than it has yet known.”

The New York Times also reprimanded radio, saying in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio” that the medium “has not mastered itself or the material it uses. … In the broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ blood-curdling fiction was offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given and interwoven with convincing actualities. … Radio officials should have thought twice before mingling this new technique with fiction so terrifying.”

Indirectly, though, newspaper reports effectively challenged the notion that Welles’ program had caused widespread chaos.

“Had mass panic and hysteria swept the country that night,” I noted in Getting It Wrong, “the trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in many deaths and injuries. But the newspaper reports were notably silent on casualties.” No accidental deaths, and no suicides, were linked to the program.

The story of nationwide panic soon faded from the front pages, which wouldn’t have been the case had the program indeed stirred nationwide turmoil. Such an extraordinary and unprecedented event surely would have generated follow-on newspaper reporting and commentary for days.

Instead, news coverage turned quickly from The War of the Worlds broadcast to such events as the celebrated horse race on November 1, 1938, between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.

Beyond the flawed newspaper reports and commentary, what solidified the panic myth was the work of Hadley Cantril, a psychology professor at Princeton University. He investigated public reaction to the performance and in 1940 published a thin volume titled The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic.

In it, Cantril wrote, “Long before the broadcast had ended people all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from Martians.”

He estimated that least 1.2 million listeners were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by The War of the Worlds dramatization. That number represents a fraction of the audience’s size, which Cantril figured to have been at least 6 million people.

Cantril did not estimate how many listeners acted on their fears, however. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, feeling “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” is hardly synonymous with being panic-stricken or hysterical.

Even so, Cantril’s book propelled the panic myth. That it did was perhaps unsurprising: Like most media myths, The War of the Worlds tale is delicious, easily remembered and easily retold.

What’s more, the myth became infused over time with something akin to a third-person effect — namely, that while media consumers back in the ’30s must have been quite gullible, we’re too media-savvy these days ever to fall for such a broadcast prank.

Several scholars, working independently over many years, contributed to unraveling the “panic broadcast” myth.

An early challenge was posed by Robert E. Bartholomew who in 1992 reported “a growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic, as described by Cantril, was greatly exaggerated.” Only “scant anecdotal evidence,” Bartholomew said, exists “to suggest that many listeners actually took some action — such as packing belongings, grabbing guns, or fleeing in cars after hearing the broadcast.”

Similarly, Erich Goode wrote in 1992 that relatively few people “actually did anything in response to the broadcast, such as drove off in panic or hid in a cellar. … It becomes clear that whatever the public reaction to The War of the Worlds radio broadcast was, it did not qualify as an instance of mass hysteria.”

In 2000, Jeffrey Sconce noted in his book, Haunted Media, “Direct evidence that thousands of Americans were in an actual panic over the broadcast is … limited at best.”

Michael Socolow, a media scholar at the University of Maine, has contributed impressively to the debunkings. He wrote in 2008 in the Chronicle of Higher Education that panic linked to The War of the Worlds dramatization “was neither as widespread nor as serious as many have believed at the time or since.”

At the 75th anniversary of the Welles broadcast, Socolow and Jefferson Poole noted in an essay for Slate.com: “The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary … almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.”

They further noted: “If War of the Worlds had in fact caused the widespread terror we’ve been told it did, you’d expect CBS and Welles to have been reprimanded for their actions. But that wasn’t the case.”

And in an essay posted at today’s Washington Post, Socolow and Poole wrote that The War of the Worlds “episode provides a clear example of the process by which fake news can quickly become ingrained deeply in American culture.”

Brad Schwartz, author of Broadcast Hysteria, also has contributed to the debunking, writing that newspapers in “sloppiness and haste … created a compelling yet inaccurate narrative: that War of the Worlds threw the entire country into chaos, causing untold numbers of listeners to act bizarrely and irrationally.”

Belatedly, a few newspapers have been coming around. London’s Daily Telegraph revisited the “panic broadcast” a couple of years ago and declared it a myth.

It may well be that no media myth ever dies completely away.

But it may be that “panic broadcast” myth of The War of the Worlds will be that rare exception.

WJC

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