W. Joseph Campbell

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

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