Thursday, May 11, 2017

Fake Hysteria, Orson Welles, and War of the Worlds

Like many writers, I sometimes do other work to make ends meet. One of the jobs I’ve had involved reviewing short written answers to test questions about a designated reading. The students were eleventh graders and one of the readings was about Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds broadcast on Mercury Theatre on the Air.
On his show, Orson Welles presented audiences with dramatizations of various novels. On October 30, 1938, the selection was War of the Worlds, an 1898 novel by H.G. Wells. The novel was adapted to depict a live invasion of Grover Mills, New Jersey, by hostile Martians. According to lore, the broadcast sent millions of Americans into a panic.
However, that lore has been debunked.
W. Joseph Campbell, a professor at American University, wrote about War of the Worlds in his book, Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism. “In short, the notion that the War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in panic is a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the power radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm,” he wrote.[1]

Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow of Slate Magazine also wrote an informative article about The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic. “How did the story of panicked listeners begin?” they asked. “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.” The article appeared in Slate on October 28th, 2013.
Getting back to those eleventh graders, for their test they read an essay about the War of the Worlds which appeared to be authoritative. Then many of the students opined that with the various media now available to everyone through the internet, it would be impossible for anyone to fool people the way many supposedly were fooled by the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938.
Many of the students seemed to think that the availability of information from numerous sources ensures that readers and viewers of the news will be able to make better evaluations of stories in the news. The problem is that most people don’t access all of the information available to them on any given subject. Who has the time for that?
There’s now so much information and opinion available on most subjects that it would be challenging to look at all of the pertinent media with which one generally agrees. People who lean to the political right gravitate toward publishers that support that perspective. Those include Fox News, National Review, Weekly Standard, Newsmax, Breitbart, InfoWars, and others, depending on how far to the right a person leans.  Likewise, people who lean to the left can find plenty of what they agree with on CNN, MSNBC, The Daily Beast, Occupy Democrats, Mother Jones and many other fine news outlets.
Having information from many sources can help consumers of the news, but only if they look at lots of it and know how to make sense of it all. In 1938, following the War of the Worlds broadcast, when stories about panic in the streets were appearing in lots of newspapers, people believed them. The storyline was so pervasive that intelligent people believe it to this day. (I believed it right up to the day I began digging a bit for information for this article.)
Nevertheless, in spite of the story being covered very similarly in many places, it, apparently, was not true. Today, even though we have many more sources of information available to us than ever before, our skills at evaluating what we are consuming may not be much better than those of the people who believed the War of the Worlds myth.

1. W. Joseph Campbell, Getting It Wrong, Fright beyond Measure, University of California Press, page 27

A limerick about Chuck Schumer changing his mind about James Comey
On May 11, 2017, the day after the news came out that President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, I wrote a limerick about the reaction of U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer. In November, he, along with others, wanted Comey out. However, when Trump actually dismissed Comey in May, Senator Schumer and others were outraged. It inspired me to write the following limerick.
There was a New Yorker named Schumer,
Who would have fired James Comey much sooner.
But Donald Trump won,
and got the job done.
And that changed the mind of Chuck Schumer.
I posted the limerick on several Facebook newsfeeds. The first was Newsmax and then other right-leaning websights, as well as The Daily Beast. On Sean Hannity’s feed, the verse accumulated lots of likes and comments.

This note is for the record so that if the limerick gets into print anywhere, my claim to ownership of it is clear. 

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