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The War of the Worlds That Wasn’t

Will a new PBS "American Experience" perpetuate the libel that millions were driven berserk by a Halloween radio play back in 1938?

by
Kathy Shaidle

Bio

October 29, 2013 - 8:48 am

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Never mind that “apples-full-of-razor-blades” moral panic that was debunked way back in 1985.

Tireless “media myth” buster W. Joseph Campbell proposes a better candidate for the title of “Halloween’s greatest media myth”:

The notion that [Orson Welles' October 30, 1938 radio production of] The War of the Worlds convulsed America in panic and mass hysteria.

Americans will get to relive the famous incident on Tuesday, October 29, when PBS airs its new “War of the Worlds” episode of American Experience.

Campbell, an expert on Welles’ infamous broadcast, expressed wariness as soon as PBS announced the project:

A description PBS has posted online signals that its documentary, as suspected, will buy into the panic myth. The description says, in part, that “perhaps a million or more” listeners that night in 1938 were “plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.”

PBS also says The War of the Worlds program created “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history.” As if there have been many such events.

As Campbell goes on to demonstrate in some detail, those reports of mass hysteria induced by a radio play on the eve of World War II have been greatly exaggerated.

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Campbell explains:

In overwhelming numbers, listeners to the program recognized it for what it was: An imaginative and entertaining show that aired on CBS Radio in its usual Sunday evening time slot.

I also note that had panic and mass hysteria swept the country that night, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have led to many deaths and serious injuries.

But newspaper reports of the time were notably silent about extensive casualties. No deaths were attributed to The War of the Worlds broadcast.

And as Michael J. Socolow wrote in a fine essay about the program, no suicides could “be traced to the broadcast,” either.

The notion that “millions” of Americans were duped into believing that a radio play was really a news broadcast persists for the same reasons similar myths persist:

That myth is useful to progressives.

Like other overblown liberal fairy stories — the murder of Kitty Genovese; that “Super Bowl Sunday wife-beating epidemic;” “the Milgram experiment; imaginary “No Irish Need Apply” signs; and other instances of make-believe “racism” — the “War of the Worlds” “panic” is cited as proof that the average American is an impressionable bumpkin, poised to bully, mob and riot at the slightest provocation.

Progressives believe that only they — the enlightened, educated elite — can possibly keep their fellow citizens’ baser instincts in check, through regular scoldings from on high, through “better education,” through bigger government, and cradle-to-grave “protection.”

Edward R. Murrow was delighted to pile on the elite disdain for his fellow Americans in his 1957 documentary “The Night America Trembled.”

Naturally he expects you to equate the imaginary hysteria prompted by “The War of the Worlds” broadcast with McCarthy’s “communist witch hunts” — which, we now know, weren’t as absurdly pointless as Murrow famously made them out to be.

As long as the Left controls pop culture, the rest of us will be obliged to debunk their dangerous myths from the sidelines, year in and year out.

It’s a bit like puny humans trying to fight off all-powerful Martians, I know.

But what choice do we have?

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(KATHY SHAIDLE is a blogging pioneer who runs FiveFeetOfFury, now in its 14th year. She's been called "one of the great virtuoso polemicists of our time," by MARK STEYN. Her NEW book is Confessions of A Failed Slut (Thought Catalog, 2014).

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All Comments   (17)
All Comments   (17)
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Having listened to the programme last night, the most convincing aspect were the inclusion of amateur radio break-ins. Nice touch. Welles had a fine understanding how the disaster would unfold, but he didn't have the time frame; a mere half-hour opposed to maybe, three or four days at least. The 'dialog' between the reporter and the 'survivor' totally broke the fourth-wall of suspense and shouldn't have happened at all if your intent was to play the listening audience.....'>........

A moderately lively old radio play. Not really 'cutting edge', nothing on air in the 1930's would qualify. If you wanted edgy, or shockingly challenging, that's what books were for...'>.....
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Have you ever thought that Orson Welles ran with this story about the mass hysteria and used it to his advantage. There's no bad publicity.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
That would not surprise me. He was a cagey fellow.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
If you listen to the actual recording you notice they do things like go to commercials during the broadcast along with a "you're listening to" message, which probably would be less important during an actual attack from Mars. Also, after an on-site news broadcast that is 'cut-off' with people screaming they quickly go back to light piano music.

I don't want anyone to freak out or activate their Zombie apocolypse plan but here is the actual broadcast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6YNHq1qc44

Here is a link to the Archive version which is a little longer, so they might have included the commercials: https://archive.org/details/OrsonWellesMrBruns
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
PBS also says The War of the Worlds program created “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history.” As if there have been many such events."

Global warming is the mother of all such events.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
My Dad was a boy living in New Jersey when it happened. He said his brother-in-law changed the station, found music and they all realized it was a joke.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Remember Bill the Cat wasn't really dead, "Ack, Ack Phttttttttt!
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
No! No! You poltroon!

It's "Ack! Tbphtttttt!"

Gotta remember the t.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Remember Bill he cat was not really Dead "ACK, ACK!"
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
One you left off your list was the Scopes Trial - American Experience actually did a really good documentary on that one several years ago that debunked many of the myths enshrined in the ludicrously inaccurate play Inherit the Wind. Too bad they dropped the ball on this one. Slate had a good debunking today, but other MSM outlets seem to be falling for it.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Agreed. I've about given up on TV documentaries. They tend to be long on drama and short on facts.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
But reasonably well stocked with political correctness.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
On Halloween night, CNN should announce hundreds of mile-wide shiny spheres are hovering over every major city in the world, shooting death rays and lobbing atomic bombs. They could have fake footage and everything.

Anderson Cooper could have ash smeared on his face, his shirt torn, and blood running from his lip.

"We don't know what they want, they're just killing everybody! Run!!!!"
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Man that would be awesome. Except nobody ever watches CNN anymore right, unless they're stuck at the airport? :-)
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Meh. It runs on a 52" screen in the lobby of the building in which I work.

All. Day. Long.

51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
That would be funny! Mainly because most of the people who have access to CNN's "news" are also capable of checking CNN's "facts." If CNN said the Martians were coming, I'd be all over the Web finding out if it's really true. I might even be able to find a webcam pointed at Horsell Common. No tripods? No worries.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Not to worry. If CNN broadcast it the only people who saw it would be in airport terminals, so the panic would be easily contained.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
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