Tuesday, October 28, 2008


You've probably heard the story about the massive panic inspired by Orson Welles' legendary 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Professor Michael J. Socolow says it just didn't happen the way everybody thinks it did (via Nick Gillespie at Hit & Run):

The "War of the Worlds" broadcast remains enshrined in collective memory as a vivid illustration of the madness of crowds and the deeply invasive nature of broadcasting. The program seemingly proved that radio could, in the memorable words of Marshall McLuhan, turn "psyche and society into a single echo chamber." The audience's reaction clearly illustrated the perils of modernity. At the time, it cemented a growing suspicion that skillful artists — or incendiary demagogues — could use communications technology to capture the consciousness of the nation. It remains the prime example used by media critics, journalists, and professors to prove the power of the media.

Yet the media are not as powerful as most think, and the real story behind "The War of the Worlds" is a bit more complex. The panic was neither as widespread nor as serious as many have believed at the time or since.

Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the broadcast. Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry. Ben Gross, the radio columnist of the New York Daily News, later remembered a "lack of turmoil in front of CBS" that contrasted notably with the crowded, chaotic scene inside the building. Telephone lines in New York City and a few other cities were jammed, as the primitive infrastructure of the era couldn't handle the load, but it appears that almost all the panic that evening was as ephemeral as the nationwide broadcast itself, and not nearly as widespread. That iconic image of the farmer with a gun, ready to shoot the aliens? It was staged for Life magazine.

Socolow blames a media that fell in love with the story, Welles' own tendencies towards self-aggrandizement, and a really bad telephone survey. Revise your collective memory accordingly.

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