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War of the Worlds Broadcast: UMaine Professor Debunks Mass Panic Story
10/30/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Here's a familiar story: Seventy-five years ago today, households across across America were crouched around the family radio set, listening to what many of them believed were true reports about a Martian invasion of earth. They were actually tuned in to a radio drama, the War of The Worlds, performed by Orson Welles' Mercury Theater. Mass panic ensued - or did it? Tom Porter reports on a University of Maine professor who looked back in time to find out what really happened.

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UMaine Prof. Debunks War of Worlds Myth Listen
 Duration:
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Originally Aired: 10/30/2013 5:30 PM
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 Duration:
7:22

WOTW-NYT-headline

Excerpt from the 1938 broadcast: "We are bringing you an eyewitness account of what's happening on the Wilmoth farm, Grovers' Mill New Jersey."

Americans glued to their radios were, of course, tuned in to the Columbia Broadcasting System's presentation of War of The Worlds by Orson Welles' Mercury Theater on the Air - an all-too believable adaption, it seems, of H.G. Wells's science fiction novel about unfriendly aliens from Mars coming to earth and killing lots of people.

Excerpt from 1938 broadcast: 'Wait a minute, something's happening, some shape is rising out of the pit, I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror."

Mass panic followed the broadcast, and upwards of a million people were convinced the Martians were here - many of them taking to the streets to flee the invaders.

There's just one problem with this version of events - it's not true, says University of Maine Journalism Professor Michael Socolow. "There weren't mobs on the streets," he says. "People didn't get hurt, there weren't any reports from hospital room admissions, things like that didn't happen."

Drawing on past and original research, Socolow has co-written an article that takes issue with the whole "mass hysteria" story that grew out of that now infamous broadcast. For a start, he says, there were far fewer people listening to the play than is commonly thought.

"The commercial ratings system did release to Broadcasting Magazine a summary of the ratings that night, and 98 percent of the 5,000 people that called during the broadcast either were not listening to radio, or were not listening to War of the Worlds."

And that 98 percent not listening, he says, would have included all of New England: That's because the Yankee Network, broadcasting to the region from Boston, did not even air War of the Worlds, choosing to broadcast a commercial program instead. Furthermore, of the 2 percent who were listening, says Socolow, none mistook the play for a real news program.

So why the perception of hysteria? Why were newspapers running headlines like "Martian Invasion" and "Terror from the Skies?" Socolow says we can blame the newspapers themselves, who were desperate to discredit the relatively new medium of radio as a credible and responsible news source.

"The newspapers at the time didn't like radio," he says. "They were in a fierce competition of survival - economic and political survival - between 1936 and World War II, and this was a terrific opportunity for the newspapers to attack radio as a credible news source. So they did."

They sensationalized reports and rumors of panic, he says, which didn't really happen. Socolow says another culprit in the perpetuation of this myth is the human psyche itself. He talks of a "collective false memory syndrome," in which people convince themselves they have experienced something which they have not.

Socolow cites a more recent example of how it might work. "If we were to ask 100 Americans right now, did they see the plane fly into the World Trade Center on television when it happened on 9/11, I think you would get a very, very large percentage saying they saw it, OK? But it actually occurred at - what? - 9:48 a.m. on that day, and we know not that many people were watching live television at 9:48 on that day."

Seventy-five years on, Socolow says there are lessons to be learned from the way America responded to the War of the Worlds broadcast - including what it tells us about the power of the media..

"I think the newspaper sensationalism tells more about the power of the media to shape false memories than the actual broadcast tells us about the power of the media to make people panic."

Excerpt from 1938 broadcast: "We have dispatched a special mobile unit to the scene, and will have our commentator Carl Philips give you a word picture of the scene as soon as he can reach there from Princeton. In the meantime, we take you to the Hotel Martinette in Brookyln, where Bobby Millette and his orchestra are offering a program of dance music."

Read Professor Socolow's article.


 


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