This week the 75th Anniversary of War of the Worlds passed by and the press recounted the familiar story of a nation plunged into panic by Orson Welles and the growing power of radio. Turns out, it’s much more complicated than that. Bob talks with Professor Michael Socolow, who says tales of nation-wide panic are overblown and can be traced to a nervous newspaper industry and faulty scholarship. Socolow and Jefferson Pooley wrote about War of the Worlds in Slate this week.
[WAR OF THE WORLDS CLIP]:
ANNOUNCER: The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre On the Air, in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.
[MERCURY THEATRE THEME MUSIC]
VOICE: The top's loose.
VOICE: Look out there. Stand back.
CARL PHILLIPS: Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I – I’ve ever witnessed. Wait a minute, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me.
[SOUNDTRACK UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: As you’ve no doubt heard, the 75th anniversary of War of the Worlds passed earlier this week. And you recall, of course, that Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play about a Martian invasion set off a mass national panic. Here’s Welles in a press conference following that broadcast.
REPORTER: You might have taken advantage of the public?
ORSON WELLES: I simply don’t know. I can’t imagine an invasion from Mars would find – ready acceptance.
BOB GARFIELD: We are speaking of gullibility on an epic scale. But, according to University of Maine journalism Professor Michael Socolow, the gulls weren’t the radio listeners of 1938. They are – us. Socolow and coauthor Jefferson Pooley wrote in Slate this week, “There was no widespread freak-out over the Mercury Theatre On the Air broadcast. Michael, welcome to the show.
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: So let's start with who all heard the War of the Worlds episode when it was actually broadcast back in ’38?
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: We don’t really know. We don’t have, you know, accurate numbers. But there were two surveys done that are particularly important. One was done the night during the show, and it found that 98 percent of the listening audience was listening to something else or didn’t have their radio on.
And then there was a CBS survey done the next morning that also showed that barely anybody heard it and that those who did hear it knew it was a drama.
BOB GARFIELD: But there was a particular piece of scholarship that helped advance and perpetuate the myth. Tell me about Hadley Cantril.
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: He was running the Princeton Radio Research Project when this incredible story occurred. His book, called, The Invasion from Mars, is very slim on the actual data, and it's filled with the sensationalistic lurid accounts of people telling him these narratives of fright. Cantril himself is clear about the limitations of his study, okay? So he does say there were over 12,000 newspaper articles that they had in this research project. And they tried to track down names from the research article, and they found less than six people. The problem is people bought his book like crazy because it validates the panic.
BOB GARFIELD: Banner headlines about this mass panic, where did those reports come from and how did they wind up getting that much play?
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: The reports came from newsrooms that didn't have much news. It was the day before Halloween. But the second place they came from is the context of something called the Press Radio War in the 1930s. During that decade, newspapers were dying off. They were losing a lot of advertising revenue. The newspaper owners and the newspaper industry did not like the radio industry, which was growing and gaining a lot of business, at their expense.
For years, these two industries had been fighting. You had economic and business power all shifting towards radio. When this opportunity occurred, newspapers had something to attack radio's credibility that they had never had before. In certain areas, the telephone exchanges did get flooded. I'm not saying that didn't happen. And people did call the police. I’m not saying that didn't happen. But, you know, the question you have to ask is, is that reaction rational or irrational? Is that panic? What do you do when you hear something you’re not sure about? You check up on it.
And so, we don’t know what happened in those telephone calls. We can't assume that everybody was scared out of their wits.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s say it was sensationalized, how did it survive the aftermath of that news cycle?
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: The story actually makes us feel good. We feel superior to that audience. We’re smart enough, we’re critical enough. We never would have fallen for this. It makes us feel good in the same way when, for instance, the Chinese media picks up a humorous story from The Onion and plays it straight. I mean, this has been studied by media scholars for a long time, that we all believe that other people are a lot more persuadable in the media than we are.
BOB GARFIELD: This story came up in our, our story meeting, based on your article. And I was shocked, because I, myself, have accepted the notion of mass panic, and I have heard, seen or read probably hundreds of stories about it, which means at least hundreds of times [LAUGHS] in the last 75 years, journalists have missed the opportunity to bring to bear any journalistic skepticism and due diligence, which bespeaks mass professional failure. Should I not be in despair over this?
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: No. CBS has never released their data on it. Why? Because this is about the power of the media. The media industry is premised on the idea that we can persuade people to behave in certain ways. This story is the greatest illustration of that.
BOB GARFIELD: You believe that there is a kind of institutional conspiracy on the part of all broadcast media.
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: No. I would say it in the following way, that the broadcast industry - and I'm including here broadcast advertising - makes certain assumptions about the powers they have over the mass audience that align perfectly with this story. Now, I don't think it's conscious of them to cover up the idea of what happened. I think they believe it happened.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, just in the past few days, on PBS and from WNYC's own Radiolab, you heard stuff about the War of the Worlds so-called panic that you know not to be true. It persists.
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: It persists for a very simple reason. Both Radiolab and PBS chose to use a piece of scholarship from 1940 to base their program upon. Think about this for a second, Bob.
If you if you were to make a documentary today about the Civil War or the jazz age, don't you think you’d use newer scholarship than from 1940?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s one other interpretation of these events, and I must run it past you. It – I saw it in a comment on an NPR news blog by a, a listener whose handle is Frisco John. And he sees things slightly differently. I quote, “This is all part of a massive campaign of disinformation from our current Martian overlords. Long live the resistance.” Your thoughts?
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: I’d just like, for the record, to say, I love that I've been attacked as part of a Martian conspiracy, but I’m really from the Sea of Tranquility.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Socolow is an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.
And here's a statement from the producer of American Experience, the PBS show he criticized, quote, “The producers drew on a wide range of scholarship, through interviews with several historians and cultural critics. We did make a very conscious nod to the work others have done. Hadley Cantril's reputable research has been a primary source for many who have written on the broadcast, and we saw no compelling reason not to use it.”
Radiolab said, quote, “We'll be including an interview with Socolow in our hour, and we're excited to include his perspective.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here’s fifties talk show host, Steve Allen, explaining that he and his aunt and mother briefly believed the broadcast was real, while at a hotel in Chicago.
STEVE ALLEN: Then we burst into the lobby which, to our great surprise, was absolutely calm, people reading, smoking cigars, dozing in the chairs by the potted palms. And something immediately told me that that was inconsistent with the end of the world. [LAUGHS]
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Zac Spencer and Megan Teehan. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne and Rick Kwan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.