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

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Bravo and thanks to penn for a thoughtful and thought-provoking personal reminiscence that supports my recent post about the claim that the famous panic over Orson Welles’ famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio drama never happened. Here is his fascinating Comment of the Day on Print the Legend Ethics: The “War of the Worlds” Panic:

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 .. . .] Continue reading

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

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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.” Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Ethics Dunce: Animal Planet”

Arthur in Maine contributes the Comment of the Day, expanding on the predictable comparison between Orson Welles’ Halloween radio broadcast of his adaptation of “War of the Worlds,” which many gullible listeners believed was a real invasion, with the misinformation broadcast by Animal Planet in its recent fake documentary claiming that mermaids may exist. I have a few comments afterwards; meanwhile, here is Arthur’s interesting perspective on the post, “Ethics Dunce: Animal Planet”:

“I’ll give Welles a pass here. Because of my work, I am a student of the media (contrary to the assumptions made by a kindhearted poster on another thread).

“Welles was not irresponsible. He was groundbreaking in his art, using a new form of media in a way it had never been used before. The program was announced as a radio play; it was interrupted by commercial breaks, it ended in an hour, nothing about the invasion was carried on other networks, and even more to the point: the panic ascribed to “The War of the Worlds” broadcast never happened. Continue reading