Eighty years ago tonight, CBS broadcast Orson Welles’s adaptation of “War of the Worlds,” and mass panic ensued.
Or did it?
We know today that the popular story of the mass panic sparked by “War of the Worlds,” a radio drama staged as a normal news broadcast interrupted by breaking reports of an alien invasion, was far overblown. In a nation of about 130 million people, a generous reading would conclude that fewer than 50 Americans were panicked enough by the broadcast to flee outside. That number emerges from recent scholarship by historian A. Brad Schwartz and others who’ve explored the scope of the panic in the past decade. And of that small number, nobody can be certain how many people were spooked by anxious telephone calls from friends and family rather than the broadcast.
But the myth that thousands — and as many as 1 million — mobbed the streets remains powerful. Sensationalist journalism at the time was later validated by social scientists and relayed by historians, creating a well-sourced myth that just won’t die. Efforts to debunk this myth reveal that fake news doesn’t just distort the historical record but also often spreads damaging racial and gendered stereotypes.
Newspapers that reported on the panic did so in ways that advanced ideas of racial inferiority. “Harlem was shaken by the ‘news,’ ” read one largely forgotten subhead in the New York Times. In “the parlor churches in the Negro district ... evening services became ‘end of the world’ prayer meetings.”
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle offered a similar, if more fanciful, account. “Sugar Hill in Harlem was transformed from a gay neighborhood into one in which sober, frightening thoughts were uppermost. Excited Negroes rushed into the parlor congregations they had ignored for years to join in singing spirituals. They were welcomed by their more pious brothers and sisters with ‘I told you so,’ as they changed their tune from swinging and swigging to hymning and praying,” the newspaper reported.
The Newark Star-Eagle, New Jersey’s most widely circulated newspaper, relayed a typical anecdote. “One officer said he saw a colored boy rush out of a grocery store, after hearing the radio, and turn as ‘white as the milk bottle he was carrying.’ The lad, screaming at the top of his voice, fled for home.”
These were scenes straight out of the then-popular “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio show being passed off as journalism. Readers in 1938 would have recognized the minstrelsy being proffered here: The comedic stereotype of the easily spooked African American appeared widely in that era’s media. Even by ethical standards of the time, the widespread promotion of such denigrating stereotypes in news reports would have been considered unprofessional.
The racism in these reports was often coupled with gender stereotypes. Frightened mobs of women and children made appearances in newspapers throughout America. One famous example emerged from Providence, R.I., when “women in hysterical tears … besieged the switchboard of the Providence Journal.” Reports of phantom crowds of women (“with children clinging to them”) were spread widely across the syndicated wire services.
As with the mobs of frightened African Americans, none of these women were identified or quoted. Even the policemen involved apparently preferred to withhold their identities. Everyone remained nameless, obscured by anonymity. When researchers from Princeton University later analyzed approximately 12,000 news articles about the panic, the review “failed to produce more than a half dozen interviews” for a follow-up study. That’s because, with very few exceptions, real names of actual people weren’t published — but racist and misogynistic stereotypes were.
Some newspapers, however, searched for facts, not tropes. And quite a few discovered little actual panic. “Maine Refused to Get Excited,” read the headline of a piece in the Lewiston Daily Sun. Reporters called police departments in Maine’s three largest cities and discovered that “only one … call was made to Portland’s morning newspaper offices, and police signal officers escaped entirely the busy hours their mates throughout the country put in assuring the anxiety of frightened citizens.” “The nationwide wave of hysteria generated by the Sunday night broadcast … apparently failed to affect Dubuque,” noted the Telegraph-Herald in Dubuque, Iowa. In Chicago, Salt Lake City and elsewhere, some newspapers relayed the lack of any detectable local panic.
Perhaps the most professional reporting to occur that evening came out of the Long Island Daily Press newsroom. Once the phone started ringing, the Press’s reporters and editors got an idea. They decided to conduct a telephone poll of 50 people, and found only four were tuned into the broadcast but “none of them were upset.” More than half of the people telephoned weren’t even listening to the radio, thus confirming the findings of the C.E. Hooper nationwide ratings survey. The Hooper survey established that the ratings for “War of the Worlds” were tiny, and it concluded that 98 percent of Americans were listening to something else, or not listening to the radio, when “War of the Worlds” was on the air.
The Daily Press telephone survey was excellent journalism. Once alerted to a rumor, the newspaper’s staff investigated its reality and reported results. Yet nobody has cited their work. It was forgotten until Tom Tryniski digitized the defunct newspaper’s front page and put it on the Web, where we found it.
The discovery of this forgotten reporting, when compared with the cultural memory inspired by the media’s sensationalism, pinpoints the issues arising when historians inadvertently rely on the fake news from the past. In this case, the mass panic as commonly understood didn’t happen — but newspaper journalists believed that readers would pay for stories about huge mobs of panic-stricken citizens. Their unethical and sensational journalism was a response to economic and social incentives. (Today’s fake news is responsive to these same incentives.)
The story of the “War of the Worlds” mass panic was overhyped and underreported, and it’s only recently that revisionist scholars have been able to clarify the historical record. This episode provides a clear example of the process by which fake news can quickly become ingrained deeply in American culture. Political decisions, governmental administrative moves and even social theory in the United States were made based on the idea that masses of panicked listeners fled their homes, terrorized by the radio — even though it didn’t happen that way.
The lesson is clear. Both journalists and scholars need to be more self-aware and skeptical whenever sensational stories about media manipulation arise. These stories are so irresistible that they can become too-quickly enshrined as fact, told again and again as anecdote until historians eventually certify the myths as reality.
That process didn’t begin and end in 1938. Today’s fake news can just as easily inform tomorrow’s social psychology and history textbooks. That’s the ultimate lesson we’re hoping we’ve taught with our “War of the Worlds” work, and we hope it’s one that scholars will continue to consider.