W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘H.G. Wells’

Have a look: New trailer for ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 18, 2011 at 7:08 am

Check out the new trailer for my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–those dubious stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

As I say in narrating the trailer, media-driven myths can be thought of as the “junk food of journalism“–delicious and appealing, perhaps, but not very nutritious.

The trailer, recently completed by research assistant Jeremiah N. Patterson, reviews the media myths related to the Watergate scandal, the purported Cronkite Moment, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

A trailer prepared last year by Mariah Howell shortly before publication of Getting It Wrong remains accessible at YouTube.

Another YouTube video–prepared by Patterson in the fall to mark the anniversary of the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast that supposedly was so realistic that it panicked America–also is accessible online. The video discusses Halloween’s greatest media myth.


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Discussing ‘Getting It Wrong’ at a special place

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm

There was a fine turnout today for my book talk at the Library of Congress, the splendid institution where I have done a great deal of research over the past 12 years or so.

The Library is a special place, and more than 120 people were there as I reviewed three of the 10 media-driven myths that are addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Two of the myths discussed possess a strong Washington, D.C., connections; the third was timely in a seasonal, late-October sort of way. Specifically, I discussed:

  • The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: That is, the notion that the investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.
  • The so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968: The belief President Lyndon Johnson realized the Vietnam Was was unwinnable following a dire, on-air assessment by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Southeast Asia.
  • The War of the Worlds radio dramatization: The widely held view that Orson Welles’ clever adaptation of The War of the Worlds, a science fiction thriller about a deadly Martian invasion of Earth, touched widespread panic and mass hysteria on Halloween Even 1938.

Welles and 'War of Worlds'

The anniversary of Welles’ War of Worlds broadcast is Saturday.

In my talk at the Library of Congress, I pointed out how improbable it was that a radio show–even one as inspired as Welles’ adaptation–could have had the effect of sending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of listeners into the streets in panic and hysteria.

There were many internal clues for listeners signaling that the show was just that–a radio show.

It aired Sundays, from 8-9 p.m., Eastern time, on CBS–in the usual time slot for Welles’ program, which he called the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Welles was the show’s star and director, and his distinctive voice would have been familiar to many listeners that long ago October night.

What’s more, events described in the show moved far too rapidly to be plausible or believable. In less than 30 minutes, for example, the Martians blasted off from their planet, traveled millions of miles to Earth, landed in rural New Jersey, set up lethal heat rays, wiped out units of American soldiers, and began a destructive march on New York City.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “Claims that the broadcast fomented mass panic and hysteria were dramatically overstated” by daily newspapers the following day.

Close reading of the contemporaneous newspaper accounts made it clear that they based their characterizations of widespread turmoil on relatively small numbers of anecdotal cases of people who were frightened or upset. These anecdotes, I write, “typically were not of broad scale but were small-bore. They described agitation and odd behavior among individuals, their families, or neighbors.”

But by no means did these accounts suggest fright that night reached the level of nationwide panic and mass hysteria.

For newspapers, however, the notion that The War of the Worlds show had caused great panic and alarm represented an irresistible opportunity to bash radio as an unreliable, untrustworthy upstart medium. And newspapers did so in overwhelmingly negative editorial commentary.

“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities,” the New York Times declared about the show. “It has not mastered itself or the material it uses. It does many things which the newspapers learned long ago not to do, such as mixing its news and advertising.”

Such criticism was more than mildly self-serving. After all, radio by 1938 had become an increasingly important rival source for news, information, and advertising.

And that negative commentary helped to lock into place the mistaken notion that the radio show about Martian invaders had sown panic and hysteria across the country.

My talk was sponsored by the Library’s Center for the Book, which is directed by John Y. Cole. Library stalwarts in attendance today included Terri Sierra, Mark  Sweeney, Georgia Higley, and G. Travis Westly.


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Halloween’s greatest media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 26, 2010 at 4:03 pm

My Q-and-A with Big Think blog was posted today. In it I discuss Halloween’s greatest media myth–Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds dramatization, which aired on CBS radio 72 years ago this week.

The War of the Worlds program was so clever, and made such effective use of simulated news bulletins reporting a Martian invasion of Earth, that tens of thousands–or even hundreds of thousands–of Americans were pitched into mass panic and hysteria.

Or so the media myth has it.

As I discuss in my new mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension” on that long ago night in 1938.

While some Americans may have been briefly frightened or upset by Welles’ program, “most listeners, overwhelmingly, were not: They recognized it for what it was—an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween,” I point out in Getting It Wrong.

I discuss in the Q-and-A with Big Think just how improbable and unlikely it was that tens of thousands of people were panic-stricken by the radio show.

Think about it, I say: “Tens of thousands? Even hundreds of thousands? That sounded to me quite unlikely and highly improbable. Especially given that mass panic is such a rare phenomenon.”

I added that anecdotal news reports about reactions to the broadcast “simply did not rise to the level of nationwide panic and mass hysteria.”

I also pointed out that had there indeed been widespread panic and hysteria that night, “newspapers for days and even weeks afterward would have been expected to have published details about the upheaval and its repercussions. But as it was, newspapers dropped the story after only a day or two.”

No deaths, serious injuries, or even suicides were associated with the program. “Had there been widespread panic and hysteria,” I noted, “surely many people would have been badly injured and even killed in the resulting tumult.”

I discussed in some detail at Big Think what I call “the would-be Paul Revere effect,” which emerged as the The War of the Worlds show unfolded.

This effect occurred when well-intentioned people who had an incomplete understanding of The War of the Worlds broadcast set out to warn others of the sudden and terrible threat.

“These would-be Paul Reveres,” I noted, “burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the country was being invaded or bombed, or that the end of the world was near. …

“The unsuspecting recipients of what were typically jumbled, second- and third-hand accounts had no immediate way of verifying the troubling news they had just received so unexpectedly. Unlike listeners of the radio show, they could not spin a dial to find out whether other networks were reporting an invasion. This second- and third-hand fright didn’t last long. It was evanescent.

“But it is interesting that the show caused some level of apprehension among many people who had not heard one word of the program.”

The “would-be Paul Revere effect” is a little-recognized subsidiary phenomenon of The War of the Worlds broadcast, a show that always is remembered at Halloween time.


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War of the Worlds

In Media myths, Media myths and radio on October 31, 2009 at 3:09 pm
Chicago Herald Examiner about War of the Worlds broadcast

Front page of the Chicago Herald Examiner on Halloween, 1938

The famous radio dramatization of The War of Worlds in October 1938 supposedly set off panic and hysteria across the United States. Tens of thousands of panic-stricken Americans were said to have taken to the streets or headed for the hills during the radio show, which was a clever adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel about an invasion by Martians wielding  deadly heat rays.

The supposed panic that night in 1938 is a delicious story, one almost too good to be false.

But it is. There is scant evidence to believe that The War of Worlds dramatization had such an effect.

Getting It Wrong describes how newspapers of the time got it badly wrong.

Listen to the broadcast here.

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