Tuesday, October 29, 2013

War of the Worlds didn't create major panic

Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ electrifying War of the Worlds broadcast, in which the Mercury Theatre on the Air enacted a Martian invasion of Earth. “Upwards of a million people, [were] convinced, if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders,” narrator Oliver Platt informs us in the new PBS documentary commemorating the program. The panic inspired by Welles made War of the Worlds perhaps the most notorious event in American broadcast history. ...

There’s only one problem: The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. ...

How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. 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. ...

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. It’s true that Federal Communications Commission chairman Frank McNinch quickly obtained informal agreement from the radio networks that fictional news “flashes” would not be used again, but no official rulings or regulations were promulgated. Nor were CBS or Welles sanctioned in any manner. (In fact, the FCC prohibited complaints about the program from being used in license renewal hearings.) For the FCC and the networks, the sensationalized newspaper reports were at worst a nuisance. ...

American University professor W. Joseph Campbell found that almost all newspapers swiftly dropped the story. “Coverage of the broadcast faded quickly from the front pages, in most cases after just a day or two,” Campbell writes, arguing that had the hysteria truly been widespread, “newspapers for days and even weeks afterward could have been expected to have published detailed reports about the dimensions and repercussions of such an extraordinary event.”
--Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow, Slate, on the famous panic that wasn't