Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stuff: The hoax was the real hoax.

Michael Socolow, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, takes a hard look at the most famous Halloween hoax of the media age and takes the opportunity to poke some holes in the reputation of Orson Welles' legendary War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

From Socolow's "The Hyped Panic Over War of the Worlds":

The "War of the Worlds" broadcast remains enshrined in collective memory as a vivid illustration of the madness of crowds and the deeply invasive nature of broadcasting. The program seemingly proved that radio could, in the memorable words of Marshall McLuhan, turn "psyche and society into a single echo chamber." The audience's reaction clearly illustrated the perils of modernity. At the time, it cemented a growing suspicion that skillful artists — or incendiary demagogues — could use communications technology to capture the consciousness of the nation. It remains the prime example used by media critics, journalists, and professors to prove the power of the media.

Yet the media are not as powerful as most think, and the real story behind "The War of the Worlds" is a bit more complex. The panic was neither as widespread nor as serious as many have believed at the time or since.

Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the broadcast. Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry. Ben Gross, the radio columnist of the New York Daily News, later remembered a "lack of turmoil in front of CBS" that contrasted notably with the crowded, chaotic scene inside the building. Telephone lines in New York City and a few other cities were jammed, as the primitive infrastructure of the era couldn't handle the load, but it appears that almost all the panic that evening was as ephemeral as the nationwide broadcast itself, and not nearly as widespread. That iconic image of the farmer with a gun, ready to shoot the aliens? It was staged for Life magazine.
[Famed photo featured below - CRwM]

So where did the enduring legend of nationwide panic comes from?

First, says Socolow, the scope of the panic was hyped and expanded by the media and Welles, both of which knew a good story when they saw it.

The news media loved the story, and Welles loved the news media. The panic became a global story literally overnight. Even the Nazis could not resist commenting, noting the credulity of the American public. Americans certainly appeared gullible, but they were not alone. The news media, handed a sensational story of national scope, reported every detail (including fictional ones) about Welles, the program, and the reaction.

Welles's greatest performance that evening wasn't in the studio; it was in a hallway, at the improvised news conference, when he feigned a stunned, apologetic demeanor. In reality, as Paul Heyer notes in The Medium and the Magician, Welles carefully concealed his satisfaction with the hysteria while expressing concern over the rumors of deaths attributed to the program. The threats of investigation coming from the Federal Communications Commission bothered Welles, too, but they were primarily CBS's problem.

Second, Socolow points to loss or supression of the only significant statistical effort to gauge just how widespread the panic really was. The night of the broadcast – actually the night before Halloween – CBS executive Frank Stanton and sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld created a quick statistical survey methodology and, without running it past Stanton's bosses, conducted the only timely, national survey. The results of this survey are a mystery. If the data still exists, CBS keeps it under lock and key.

Instead of the survey, the data that forms the backbone of the "everybody panic!" myth comes from social psychologist Hadley Cantril and his 1940 book The Invasion From Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Instead of conducting a national survey, Cantril based his study on 135 inteveiws.

Admitting that his interviews did not comprise an accurate sample of either the national population or the radio audience that evening, Cantril nevertheless filled his short volume with narratives of terror and fear. The interview subjects — all from New Jersey "for reasons of finance and supervision" — were found by the "personal inquiry and initiative of the interviewers" hired by Cantril. They were a self-reporting, self-selected cohort. Cantril did attempt to interview people identified in newspapers as frightened, but that effort proved almost entirely futile.

Such reliance on qualitative measures, while using an unrepresentative sample, only begins to hint at Cantril's methodological problems. Cantril's estimates of how many people actually heard the broadcast, and how many were frightened, are wildly imprecise. Because CBS's Mercury Theatre on the Air lacked sponsorship, the C.E. Hooper Company, the commercial ratings service used at the time, did not rate Welles's program. The American Institute of Public Opinion national survey (taken six weeks after the program, following an avalanche of publicity) found 12 percent of respondents claiming they had heard the broadcast. That represents an audience of almost 12 million Americans — a number that is certainly far too high. Slightly less than four million Americans had tuned into Welles's Mercury Theatre on the Air the week before "The War of the Worlds."

From such disparate approximations Cantril offered the "conservative estimate" that six million Americans heard the broadcast. The public-opinion institute's survey found that 28 percent of the listeners believed the broadcast contained real news bulletins, and of that 28 percent about 70 percent were "frightened or disturbed." These numbers undercut several of Cantril's assertions about the scope of the panic; they reveal that about three out of four listeners knew the program was fiction. So Cantril did what many social scientists faced with disagreeable data do: He spun the numbers. The low numbers, he wrote, represent the "very minimum of the total number actually frightened" because "many persons were probably too ashamed of their gullibility to confess it in a cursory interview." He candidly admitted that "there is the possibility that some people heard so much about the broadcast that they reported actually hearing it."

In other words, Cantril concluded that many respondents probably lied.

Stanton and Lazarsfeld sound mocked Cantril's methods and conclusions, but the myth of the broadcast's power was becoming criticism proof.

At the end of the article, Socolow suggests that the enduring appeal of the myth has to do with a certain sense of intellectual superiority, bred of some widely-held but poorly supported academic and lay stereotypes:

That is the ultimate irony behind "The War of the Worlds." The discovery that the media are not all-powerful, that they cannot dominate our political consciousness or even our consumer behavior as much as we suppose, was an important one. It may seem like a counterintuitive discovery (especially considering its provenance), but ask yourself this: If we really know how to control people through the media, then why isn't every advertising campaign a success? Why do advertisements sometimes backfire? If persuasive technique can be scientifically devised, then why do political campaigns pursue different strategies? Why does the candidate with the most media access sometimes lose?

The answer is that humans are not automatons. We might scare easily, we might, at different times and in different places, be susceptible to persuasion, but our behavior remains structured by a complex and dynamic series of interacting factors.

Later media theory, and empirical research, would complicate and refine those earliest findings. But the basic problem of audience reception remains stubbornly resistant, and as long as the mass media exist, we'll have empirical studies with dueling conclusions concerning effects. Many people, including scholars, will continue to believe something they intuitively suspect: that the media manipulate the great mass of the nation, transforming rational individuals into emotional mobs. But notice how those who believe this never include themselves in the mob. We are, as the Columbia University sociologist W. Phillips Davison once pointed out, very susceptible to the notion that others are more persuadable than ourselves.

Would you have fallen for Welles's broadcast? If not, why do you assume so many other people did?


AndyDecker said...

Interesting stuff. Thanks! This has really become an ironclad myth, retold in countless books, movies and tv shows.

Of course it fits nicely with the Welles-as-genius theme. I wonder if this would also be if Welles career didn´t crashed so spectaculary. The tales about the man have far overshadowed his actual work,

CRwM said...


Thanks for stopping by.

I wonder if Welles' would have been pleased that he may be his own most lasting creation (which is no small thing given that we're talking about the man who created Citizen Kane - the flick that regularly swaps places with the Godfather as "the American film.")

Anonymous said...

Alas, where's the snopes page for this urban legend ?