October 30, 2013
PROF. W. JOSEPH CAMPBELL: PBS squanders opportunity to offer ‘content that educates’ in ‘War of the Worlds’ doc.
PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show, which aired 75 years ago tomorrow night on CBS, really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States. That’s the conventional wisdom, and it makes for a deliciously good yarn — that Americans back then were so skittish or doltish or unaccustomed to electronic media that they readily believed the story of the lethal Martian invasion of Earth, as described in The War of the Worlds broadcast.
The PBS documentary embraced the conventional wisdom.
But a growing body of scholarship — which the documentary utterly ignored — has impugned the conventional wisdom and has offered a compelling counter narrative: The War of the Worlds program sowed no widespread chaos and alarm. Instead, listeners in overwhelming numbers recognized the program for what it was: A clever radio show that aired in its scheduled Sunday time slot and featured the not-unfamiliar voice of the program’s 23-year-old star, Orson Welles.
This scholarship is neither obscure nor inaccessible.
But it’s inconvenient to the preferred narrative and hence ignored. Because that’s how PBS rolls.