Tonight’s snoozy PBS documentary about the 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds not only was tedious fare — it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.
PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show, which aired 75 years ago tomorrow night on CBS, really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States. That’s the conventional wisdom, and it makes for a deliciously good yarn — that Americans back then were so skittish or doltish or unaccustomed to electronic media that they readily believed the story of the lethal Martian invasion of Earth, as described in The War of the Worlds broadcast.
The PBS documentary embraced the conventional wisdom.
But a growing body of scholarship — which the documentary utterly ignored — has impugned the conventional wisdom and has offered a compelling counter narrative: The War of the Worlds program sowed no widespread chaos and alarm. Instead, listeners in overwhelming numbers recognized the program for what it was: A clever radio show that aired in its scheduled Sunday time slot and featured the not-unfamiliar voice of the program’s 23-year-old star, Orson Welles.
This scholarship is neither obscure nor inaccessible.
Jeffrey Sconce, for example, pointed out in 2000 in his book, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television: “Direct evidence that thousands of Americans were in actual panic over the [War of the Worlds] broadcast is … limited at best. … And yet the legend of paralyzing ‘mass panic’ lives on.”
Edward Jay Epstein has dismissed as a “fictoid” the notion that the radio program touched off mass hysteria. “The accounts of suicides, heart attacks, traffic collisions and flights all proved to be unfounded,” Epstein wrote, adding:
“The program itself of course was a fiction. So was the ‘Mass Hysteria,’ which became part of American folklore about the power of the media.”
Michael Socolow, a journalism historian at the University of Maine, said this about The War of the Worlds broadcast in a thoughtful commentary for the Chronicle of Higher Education five years ago:
“Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the broadcast. Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry.”
Socolow more recently has written a superb assessment of the broadcast, which was posted today at Slate.com. In it, he wrote:
“The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast.”
Fifteen years ago, at the 60th anniversary of The War of the Worlds dramatization, Robert E. Bartholomew, an international expert on mass panic, pointed to a “growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic” created by Welles’ program, “was greatly exaggerated.
“The irony here,” Bartholomew wrote, “is that for the better part of the past sixty years many people may have been misled by the media to believe that the panic was far more extensive and intense than it apparently was.”
The panic, to be sure, was overstated. Exaggerated. And has become the stuff of a tenacious media-driven myth.
As I wrote in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “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 also discuss in Getting It Wrong a little-studied secondary phenomenon associated with The War of the Worlds broadcast, that “a false-alarm contagion took hold that night” in which well-intentioned people possessing little more than an incomplete understanding of Welles’ program set out on their own to warn others about a sudden and terrible threat.
These would-be Paul Reveres, I wrote, “burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the country was being invaded or bombed, or that the end of the world was near.
“It had to have been a cruel and unnerving way of receiving word of a supposedly calamitous event — to be abruptly disturbed in familiar settings by a vague reports offered by people who themselves clearly were terror-stricken. … In more than a few cases, a contagion took hold: Many non-listeners became quite frightened, thus compounding for a short time the commotion and confusion stemming from The World of the Worlds program.”
PBS might well have examined that effect. It might have more seriously considered the broader counter-narrative that has taken shape about the radio dramatization.
PBS might have examined, in ways revealing to its audience, how media influences are not transmitted like a narcotic injected by hypodermic needle. News and entertainment media exert influences in ways that typically are far more subtle, nuanced, complex, and uneven.
But to believe The War of the Worlds radio program stirred chaos, mass panic, and widespread hysteria is effectively to embrace the hypodermic needle theory of media influence — a theory discredited long ago .
The age, class, wealth, education, political views, and life experiences of media audiences all are factors as to how media messages are absorbed and interpreted — if they are absorbed at all.
Socolow in his Chronicle article in 2008 noted the uneven and often-limited effects of media messages, writing:
“If we really know how to control people through the media, then why isn’t every advertising campaign a success? Why do advertisements sometimes backfire? If persuasive technique can be scientifically devised, then why do political campaigns pursue different strategies? Why does the candidate with the most media access sometimes lose?”
PBS — which says its mission is “to create content that educates, informs and inspires” — might have seized the opportunity of the 75th anniversary of The War of the Worlds broadcast to address such questions.
But, no: The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- ‘War of the Worlds’ made boring: PBS documentary is tedious fare
- Why ‘War of the Worlds’ show didn’t panic America
- ‘War of the Worlds’ radio panic was overstated
- Halloween’s greatest media myth
- ‘Digital wildfires’ and the ‘War of the Worlds’ media myth
- Area 51 book offers implausible, myth-based tale
- Arrogance: WaPo won’t correct dubious claim about Nixon ‘secret plan’ for Vietnam
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- Two myths and today’s New York Times
- Fact-checking Keller on NYT-Bay of Pigs suppression myth
- ‘Exquisitely researched and lively’