W. Joseph Campbell

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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Say, CJR: Never hurts to check your archives

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 17, 2018 at 7:12 am

It may seem picky to dispute claims that the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein “exposed the coverup” the Nixon administration put in place to deflect investigators’ attention from the scandal’s signal crime, the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

But, really, it isn’t picky, because to credit Woodward and Bernstein with unraveling the coverup is to distort and exaggerate their marginal overall contributions to uncovering Watergate.

Thus, this post, which calls attention to such a claim in Columbia Journalism Review’s takeout about Woodward’s new book, the latest to describe a chaotic Trump administration.

The journalism review article says that Woodward and Bernstein, in their reporting for the Washington Post, “used the most famous anonymous source in American history — FBI Associate Director Mark Felt a.k.a. ‘Deep Throat’ — to expose the cover-up behind the Watergate burglary that unraveled Nixon’s presidency.”

Expose the cover-up?

Woodward: ‘We couldn’t get that high’

That’s not what happened.

Felt, who periodically spoke with Woodward about Watergate in 1972 and 1973 (and never met Bernstein until many years after Watergate), did not provide such information.

For confirmation, Columbia Journalism Review needed only to consult its archives.

Its July/August 1973 issue carried a lengthy and hagiographic account that saluted Woodward and Bernstein as “two Davids” who “slew Goliath.” The article was an early expression of the trope that Woodward and Bernstein were vital to bringing down the corrupt presidency of President Richard Nixon — a tenacious media myth that’s debunked in my book, Getting It Wrong.

Deep in the journalism review’s article in 1973 appeared this passage:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means. It had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.”

The journalism review then quoted Woodward as saying about those aspects of Watergate:

“‘It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.'”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the New York Times “was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure that made clear that efforts were under way to conceal the roles of others in the scandal.” I quoted a passage in a book by John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, as saying the Times‘ report about hush-money payments “hit home! It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

Unequivocal evidence of Nixon’s guilty role in coverup wasn’t revealed until August 1974 and the disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” secret White House audiotape, the release of which was ordered in late July 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court order. The tape’s content sealed Nixon’s fate.

Consulting its archives might have prevented Columbia Journalism Review from claiming Woodward and Bernstein’s exposing the Watergate coverup. And this advice is not empty. Consulting the archives, reading-in to see what has been written, is a fundamental first step for journalists. Or ought to be.

Besides, as I write in Getting It Wrong, reading what was written can be an antidote to media-driven myths.

“Digitization has made it easier than ever to consult and scrutinize source material from the past,” I note. “Never has American journalism’s record been more readily accessible. Reading what was written makes it clear that the War of the Worlds radio broadcast [in 1938] created nothing approaching nationwide panic and hysteria. Reading what was written makes clear that Murrow’s critique of McCarthy [in 1954] was belated and unremarkable.”

Reading what was written makes clear that exposing Watergate’s coverup was not the work of Woodward and Bernstein.

WJC

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