At his nifty Media Myth Alert blog to promote his new book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, W. Joseph Campbell debunks all sorts of conventional media wisdom of the events of the 20th century. In a new post he looks at the moment that put Orson Welles on the map, the War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938, and the scope of the panic it caused:
The War of the Worlds dramatization aired from 8-9 on Sunday night in the East, a time when most newspaper newsrooms were thinly staffed.
Reporting on the reactions to The War of The Worlds broadcast represented no small challenge, especially for morning newspapers having late-night deadlines.
“Given the constraints of time and staffing,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “relying on wire services such as the Associated Press became essential. This dependency, in turn, had the effect of promoting and deepening the notion that panic was widespread that night: On a late-breaking story of uncertain dimension and severity, many newspapers took their lead from wire service dispatches.
“They had little choice.”
The AP’s reports about the program essentially were roundups of reactions culled from the agency’s bureaus across the country, I write. Typically, AP roundups emphasized sweep—pithy anecdotal reports from many places—over depth and detail.
The anecdotes about people frightened by the show tended to be sketchy, shallow, and small-bore. But their scope contributed to and confirmed the sense that widespread panic was afoot that night.
The reliance on wire service roundups helps explain the consensus among U.S. newspapers that the broadcast had created mass panic.
Interestingly, newspaper content also helps to undercut the notion that panic and hysteria swept the country that night. Had that happened, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have led to many deaths and serious injuries.
But newspaper reports were notably silent on extensive casualties.
No deaths were attributed to the War of the Worlds broadcast. And as Michael J. Socolow wrote in his fine essay about the program, no suicides could “be traced to the broadcast,” either.
Read the whole thing — though perhaps Welles himself had the most economical rejoinder. At about 7:25 into Citizen Kane’s “News on the March” montage, Welles as Kane tells his “interviewer” (actually his brilliant cinematographer, Gregg Toland in a cameo appearance), “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.” That’s advice universally applicable to every information medium, and a theme that would bookend Welles’ career.
(As for the pernicious impact on the 20th century of H.G. Wells himself, Fred Siegel has you covered at City Journal.)