The Hyped Panic Over 'War of the Worlds'

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[Michael J. Socolow is an assistant professor in the department of communication and journalism at the University of Maine at Orono. He is completing a manuscript on regulation and competition in the first two decades of American network radio.]

Frank Stanton sensed trouble. Sitting in his living room on the night of October 30, 1938, the young CBS executive tuned in to catch Orson Welles's adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. The program sounded crisp and engaging — but a bit too realistic. Stanton grabbed his coat and headed back to CBS' headquarters on Madison Avenue. Pushing his way through chaotic hallways jammed with reporters, police, and network employees, he reached his desk and telephoned his friend Paul Lazarsfeld.

Stanton and the sociologist Lazarsfeld set out to measure the panic as quickly and accurately as possible before it subsided. Their basic results would spur a remarkable conversation that reverberates 70 years later in social psychology, media theory, federal regulation, and other fields.

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....
Read entire article at Michael J. Socolow in the Chronicle of Higher Ed

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