The War Over ‘War of the Worlds’ – Myth or Math?

Conventional wisdom holds that Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds terrorized an entire nation.

Representative sample from the following day:

 

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But that’s not really what happened, as Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow chronicled in Slate on October 28, 2013.

The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic

Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio program did not touch off nationwide hysteria. Why does the legend persist?

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, 131028_HIST_OrsonWelles.jpg.CROP.promovar-medium2that 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.

That’s the story you already know—it’s the narrative widely reprinted in academic textbooks and popular histories. With actors dramatizing the reaction of frightened audience members (based on contemporaneous letters), the new documentary, part of PBS’s American Experience series, reinforces the notion that naïve Americans were terrorized by their radios back in 1938. So did this weekend’s episode of NPR’s Radiolab, which opened with the assertion that on Oct. 30, 1938, “The United States experienced a kind of mass hysteria that we’ve never seen before.”

There’s only one problem: The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.

Pooley and Socolow proceed to put some numbers to their thesis:

The night the program aired, the C.E. Hooper ratings service telephoned 5,000 households for its national ratings survey. “To what program are you listening?” the service asked respondents. Only 2 percent answered a radio “play” or “the Orson Welles program,” or something similar indicating CBS. None said a “news broadcast,” according to a summary published in Broadcasting. In other words, 98 percent of those surveyed were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938.

Now comes A. Brad Schwartz’s new book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, which also questions how many people were really “terrorized.”

From yesterday’s The Takeaway with John Hockenberry:

[B]y the next day, a media sensation had been created. Headlines on papers like The New York Daily News and the Boston Globe declared that the radio play had terrified an entire nation.

But how many people were really scared? And what was it that they were actually frightened of?

Turns out – according to Schwartz – the public was really frightened about “what this said about their country” and whether “democracy could survive in the mass media age.” There was also “great concern about the power of propaganda – especially through the medium of radio.”

Think Fr. Coughlin and Huey Long.

From there The Takeaway interview moved to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (Listen here.) Interesting.

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4 Responses to The War Over ‘War of the Worlds’ – Myth or Math?

  1. Mike Barry says:

    When the legend becomes fact…

  2. Curmudgeon says:

    I heard a reprise of it in the early ’50s.

    It’s was, and still is, a marvelous piece of radio drams.

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