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Did Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds' really freak out a nation?

Orson Welles in rehearsal at the Campbell Playhouse

Orson Welles in rehearsal at the Campbell Playhouse in December of 1938. (Credit: CBS Radio)

Who among my savvy readers well-versed in the intricacies of broadcast journalism history -- which is to say pretty much every one of you -- knows that exactly 75 years ago Wednesday, Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast spooked a nation and launched one of the most spectacular careers in movie history?

Tuesday night, "American Experience" revisited the famous broadcast. Go here for my positive review.

But not every review was so positive, and I heard Tuesday from Michael Socolow -- son of Sanford Socolow, the legendary "Evening News with Walter Cronkite" producer -- who insists the broadcast hyped the extent of the so-called panic much as newspapers did 75 years ago. 

Socolow, a professor of journalism and communications at the University of Maine, co-wrote (with Jefferson Pooley) a piece that was posted on Slate.com Tuesday, which makes a compelling argument that there never was hysteria during the broadcast -- that it was all cooked up by the newspaper industry which was anxious to discredit radio, then threatening its hegemony.

He and Pooley certainly make an intriguing case -- that the audience for the broadcast was small and all evidence about a "panic" was anecdotal.

Here's the key outtake: 

The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast. How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted. In an editorial titled “Terror by Radio,” the New York Times reproached “radio officials” for approving the interweaving of “blood-curdling fiction” with news flashes “offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.” Warned Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove ... that it is competent to perform the news job.”

Socolow tells me he also went to PBS's ombudsman to note that the actors who portrayed presumably frightened  Americans -- a key component of Tuesday night's show -- were in fact based on people who may or may not have been real, or as he puts it:

"The documentary presents an actress portraying a "Sylvia Holmes" of Newark, N.J. The actress is African-American, and she discusses her panicked reaction to the broadcast. Sylvia Holmes is portrayed as the real name of a real person -- just as the rest of the letter-writers are claimed to be actual people. The problem is that the "Sylvia Holmes" referred to in Hadley Cantril's [history of the incident] "Invasion from Mars" (1940) is a pseudonym. There was no Sylvia Holmes from Newark who was panicked that night.

In any case, I bring all of this up for your amusement: "The War of the Worlds" was one of the most famous broadcasts in all of history, but maybe -- just maybe - its permutations weren't all they were cracked up to be.

Tags: Orson Welles , War of the Worlds , American Experience

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