Threatened by radio, newspapers exaggerated 'War of the Worlds' panic


A PBS show that will air Tuesday night and a recent "Radiolab" piece overstate the effect Orson Wells' "War of the Worlds" radio play had on the public, Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow write.

"The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast," they write. "Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast." The show was broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938.

Newspapers, which had something to fear from the emerging power of radio, fanned the story of a panic, they write. The day after the program, CBS commissioned a national survey to see how many people heard the now-famous broadcast, "and network executives were relieved to discover just how few people actually tuned in."

"In the first place, most people didn’t hear it," CBS’s Frank Stanton recalled later. "But those who did hear it, looked at it is as a prank and accepted it that way."

Pooley and Socolow look at numerous reasons the "War of the Worlds" myth continues. Northwestern University associate professor Jeffery Sconce says the story "plays a 'symbolic function' for American culture—we retell the story because we need a cautionary tale about the power of media," they write.

And that need has hardly abated: Just as radio was the new medium of the 1930s, opening up exciting new channels of communication, today the Internet provides us with both the promise of a dynamic communicative future and dystopian fears of a new form of mind control; lost privacy; and attacks from scary, mysterious forces.

Here's the broadcast:


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