Print The Legend Ethics: The “War of the Worlds” Panic


One of the worst results of an untrustworthy news media is that it becomes difficult, as time passes, to determine with any certainty what the truth is.

A classic example is on display today, in Slate, which celebrates the 75th anniversary of young, svelte, Orson Welles’ famous Halloween Eve broadcast of his radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” with no Tom Cruise or Dakota Fanning but a nice conceit that involved telling the story through fake news flashes and eye-witness interviews. (One reporter is fried on the air by the Martian invasion vehicles.) An new NPR program and a PBS documentary both tell the familiar story of how the realistic-sounding radio play caused widespread panic among radio listeners who missed the opening credits, leading them to think that Earth was really under attack. Newspapers of the day headlined mass panic, and gave accounts of citizens running for cover, huddling in the basement, and cringing in terror.  The episode made Orson Welles a national celebrity, and launched him on his meteoric, long and strange career.

According to Slate authors Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow, it never happened. Declaring the story of the “War of the Worlds” panic a myth, the authors state without equivocation that the newspaper accounts, headlines, commentary and interviews, were fabricated:

“Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted. In an editorial titled “Terror by Radio,” the New York Times reproached “radio officials” for approving the interweaving of “blood-curdling fiction” with news flashes “offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.” Warned Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove … that it is competent to perform the news job.”

To support this assertion—it is not presented as a theory—the authors cite anecdotal accounts from individuals at the time reporting calm streets and peaceful neighborhoods. Using radio listener surveys (then as now, with other media, a sketchy method at best), they conclude that “almost no one” heard the broadcast, though such ratings would have missed the results of hysterical friends and family calling by telephone to make sure everyone tuned in and learned the apocalyptic horror that was unfolding. The authors have other arguments of varying persuasiveness as well, but they have certainly convinced themselves: despite a preponderance of scholarship and historical analysis that says otherwise, Pooley and Socolow flatly state that what we have been told about Orson’s “War of the Worlds” is not merely exaggerated ( as Ethics Alarms reader Arthur in Maine noted in his 2012 Comment of the Day) but false. They then give us their theory of why the “myth” has flourished in the absence of fact:

“But the myth also persists because it so perfectly captures our unease with the media’s power over our lives. “The ‘panic broadcast’ may be as much a function of fantasy as fact,” writes Northwestern’s Jeffrey Sconce in Haunted Media, suggesting that the panic myth is a function of simple displacement: It’s not the Martians invading Earth that we fear, he argues; it’s ABC, CBS, and NBC invading and colonizing our consciousness that truly frightens us. To Sconce, the panic plays a “symbolic function” for American culture—we retell the story because we need a cautionary tale about the power of media. And that need has hardly abated: Just as radio was the new medium of the 1930s, opening up exciting new channels of communication, today the Internet provides us with both the promise of a dynamic communicative future and dystopian fears of a new form of mind control; lost privacy; and attacks from scary, mysterious forces. This is the fear that animates our fantasy of panicked hordes—both then and now.”

Pooley and Socolow could be right. They cannot possibly know that they are right, however, with the certainty they pretend. Did the newspapers sensationalize what occurred and make it out to be a larger and more widespread phenomenon than it was? That seems likely: after all, that’s what the news media did and does still: you can list recent examples as well as I can. That the newspaper industry executed a coordinated conspiracy on the crack-brained theory that showing how powerful radio entertainment was would undermine its popularity, however, strains logic and credulity.

Who organized this? How did the newspapers know in advance what Welles’ show would sound like, or whether it would be any good? Why did newspapers across the country report the same reaction, if it was all made up, unless there was careful coordination? Where are the memoirs, letters and confessions of newspaper reporters, editors and staffers who were involved in the organized subterfuge? I don’t buy it, and the more I think about it, the more ridiculous the idea is. Really? These guys really think that the entire newspaper establishment was so foolish that it would attempt an industry-wide scheme whereby it would attempt to discredit radio news by making up a front page story that a fake newscast caused mass panic, thus discrediting print journalism by perpetrating a blatant and audacious deception that could easily be used to discredit newspapers? What a good plan!!! Naturally, the “War of the Worlds” broadcast and the tales of the panic it caused boosted the popularity of radio.

As for their explanation for why the “myth” persisted: I think it’s claptrap. To begin with, the story is probably not a myth. It like many questionable historical accounts, is popular because it’s interesting, unusual and fun. It is the story of a large scale practical joke, which is how Welles liked to frame it. It also shows people who are obviously not as  smart or sophisticated as we are freaking out, which makes us feel superior: everyone loves stories about people acting foolishly in reaction to a hoax. Many film comedies have been constructed on this plot line.  “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” is a classic of the genre,  but there are others. Heck, I love the story, because it shows the power of drama. Prof. Sconce’s gibberish about “cautionary tales” is just pompous psychobabble. We like the story because its a neat story, and is more or less true. It’s as simple as that.

I have written here (and elsewhere) often ( here, here, here and here, for example) about the ethics of “printing the legend,” preserving useful, inspiring, comforting or familiar versions of history even after subsequent research calls them into question. Of course, I am a fan of getting any historical fact right: a useful lie is still a lie. However, I do not support, and in fact revile, the common practice of “trash the legend,” which is what Slate’s article seems to be doing. Many researchers and historians build reputations by discrediting accepted history, and sometimes do so with less than admirable objectives as well as less than definitive facts. In essence, they enjoy destroying heroes, and undermine historical accounts just because they can.

The best example of this I know is the question of the fate of Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Crockett’s reputation as an American hero was greatly bolstered by the assumption that he died along side his fellow Alamo defenders against overwhelming odds, grimly fighting until a Mexican bayonet or bullet brought him down. Then a letter from a Mexican general was discovered that told a different story: a man that identified himself as Crockett was captured after the battle, hiding with a few other Texans. He bargained futilely for his life and those of his companions, and was executed. This new version of Davy’s demise was immediately condemned by Alamo buffs, just as it was gleefully accepted as fact by those who love showing that American icons weren’t all they were cracked up to be. The truth is, as historian William C. Davis concluded in “Three Roads to the Alamo,” nobody who saw Davy Crockett in life and  witnessed his death survived to tell the tale. We don’t know how he died, and won’t. That Texan claiming to be a former U.S. Congressman may have been Davy, or someone else with a desperate plan: the Mexicans had no way of knowing.

Nor was that demise, if it was Davy, necessarily any less heroic than the legendary one, with Fess Parker grimly clubbing the enemy as Mexicans swarmed over the walls. As one of Crockett’s biographers pointed out, it would have been just like Davy, when the battle was nearing a close and defeat was inevitable, to gather some fellow survivors, hunker down and say, “Stick with me: I may be able to talk us out of this.”  Both stories are worth telling. But it is wrong to discard the legend until we know definitively that the legend isn’t true.

In the case of “War of the Worlds,” we don’t know that. Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow have given us some interesting perspective, but I’m not convinced. As of now, the legend sounds more likely to me, and until I see something more definitive, I’m sticking with it.


Pointer: Fark

Source and Graphic: Slate


2 thoughts on “Print The Legend Ethics: The “War of the Worlds” Panic

  1. As I understand it, Jack, the Welles broadcast still included commercial breaks and an occasional disclaimer for the audience. If so, then how could any reasonable person have interpreted it as an actual news event? In the updated script, the invasion site was New Jersey! If Martian spacecraft were blazing down on “Joisey” through the air and their three legged war machines trundling over the landscape with the Army all over the place, wouldn’t someone have noticed?! It’s always possible for some people to turn on something like that, listen for a little while and jump to conclusions. But MASS panic? Personally, I’d be more inclined to beieve that, if anyone, it would have been Welles himself who sought to benefit from the stories. But maybe I’m wrong!

    As I understood the Mexican officer’s story, five Alamo defenders had been taken prisoner after being clubbed unconscious during the battle. They were revived and brought before Santa Anna- who promptly exploded in anger that his order of no prisoners taken had been disobeyed. Then, according to the testimony, he ordered all five hacked to death with swords. One of these the officer identified as Davy Crockett. He further marvelled that none of the five made any outcry during their gruesome execution. Whether this is truth or fiction will likely never be known.

  2. This story came up every Hallowe’en in my family as I was growing up. We had family living in Toms River and in Lakewood, NJ (about 35 miles from Grover’s Mill) at the time Orson did his thing. The different reactions to the broadcast by the people living in the two places resulted in a minor family schism which continues to this day in the attitudes of their descendants.
    It was a city mouse/country mouse situation. The Lakewood adults were elementary school teachers — the sophisticates. They listened to that program as a matter of course and as they later reported, they declared this one silly from the very beginning. But then, all science fiction was silly to them (really! space ships and aleeums? pshaw!) — my father (it was his side of the family) always contended they had no imagination. My mother recalled, however, many years later (and after taking several psychology courses at the New School), that commercials or not, she was convinced they had been very disturbed, if not downright scared. Scared enough to sit through the whole “silly” program in the first place, and for the rest of their lives to focus an uncharacteristic rage on the writers … for using the name of a real location in the program. [I think this naming of Grover’s Mill may account for some of the anxiety, if not the panic — people were sooo trusting of the media in those days .. . .]
    . The Tom’s River contingent had started out as sophisticates, too. New Yorkers, in fact. But circumstances had uprooted them from their urban scepticism and landed them on a chicken farm in South Jersey. They never quite adjusted and were always uncomfortable and patently uneasy in their rural milieu. I’m not sure when they tuned in to the program, but they certainly missed the opening. They heard about it by accident — picking up the telephone to make a call and getting an earful on the party line. One distant neighbor was excitedly telling another to listen to the radio and described some of what was going on. Whoever had picked up the phone would have downed it quickly: that’s what you did on a party line. The excitement (said my mom) could easily have been for the drama, rather than fear of a true tragedy unfolding, a form of gossip, as it were. But to the neo-country mice, who then tuned in probably near the end, possibly never hearing (or exclaiming over) any station breaks, gathered up some survival essentials, and retreated to the storm cellar, not coming out until the next morning when, presumably, the clucking recalled them to their duty, even in the face of danger..
    To their everlasting shame, they called the Lakewood relatives to ask what was happening with the invasion.
    . . . . In a way, I think a lot of people today are even more vulnerably naive than 75 years ago. The snake oil salesmen and pitchwomen have more media to work with; the media across the board, if not less reliable, have so many more options for promoting Big Lies with which to fool the superstitious and the credulous; and a disintegration in basic education (logical thinking) along with unending waves of new un-understood technology, has created a society that mistakes reality for fiction and vice versa; and which distrusts and fears (you don’t need a psychology course to recognize fear responses) just about everything.
    I think the “Tom’s River” reaction went on and goes on a lot more than we know.

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