More Words About 'War of the Worlds'
By Michael Getler
November 8, 2013
Last week's column dealt with a documentary aired on Oct. 29 as part of the PBS "American Experience" series. The hour-long program marked the 75th anniversary of the famous 1938 CBS radio broadcast of the Orson Welles dramatization of a novel written 40 years earlier by H.G. Wells titled "War of the Worlds."
I'm posting a second time about the program because, while the thrust of my criticism had to do with what I felt was all but left out of the American Experience treatment of the episode, critics who have studied this episode have raised other challenges.
That 1938 radio broadcast is said by many to be the most famous of our time and it did set off a ruckus and frightened lots of people for a while when Welles used fake radio bulletins to break into the program and report that Martians had indeed landed at Grovers Mill, N.J., and were wreaking havoc.
I wrote that the program was valuable and well done and was careful in its narrated description of the scale of what happened. But the main focus of my assessment was critical in that the producers, in my opinion, had underplayed and failed to explain more fully an important factor that challenges the extent to which the radio program truly "provoked such outrage, or such chaos," as the narrator says at the outset, that "upwards of a million people [were] convinced, if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders."
An Unexplored Aspect
What jolted me as a viewer was one line casually uttered by the narrator in the final seconds, and after an hour of panic-suggesting newspaper headlines, that stated: "Ultimately, the very extent of the panic would come to be seen as having been exaggerated by the press." Actually, I did not know that and I wrote: "Really! Is that not part of the real story? Is that not worth more than a sentence at the end of an hour-long program?"
I quoted and agreed with author and critic W. Joseph Campbell who wrote that PBS had squandered an opportunity to offer "content that educates" and could have "confronted head-on" whether the program actually did provoke hysteria and mass panic. I mentioned other scholars who were critical and also quoted another article by Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow that laid out in some detail how "the newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted."
What follows is my attempt to summarize — although in what turned out to be a lengthy posting — the additional issues that have surfaced, along with responses from American Experience (AE) and some further views of my own. In the aftermath of the PBS broadcast, I forwarded complaints from Campbell, but primarily from Socolow — an associate professor in the Department of Communications and Journalism at the University of Maine — to AE's Executive Producer Mark Samels. Both of these critics have written extensively about this program.
The Strange Case of 'Sylvia Holmes'
The most contentious issue raised by the critics, especially Socolow, revolves around one of the 16 individuals whose reaction to the 1938 broadcast is re-created, using actors, in the AE documentary. Her name in the documentary is "Sylvia Holmes," which is not her real name.
That name comes from a well-known study about the program in 1940 by Princeton University public opinion researcher Hadley Cantril. The study was titled: "The Invasion from Mars, a Study in the Psychology of Panic." In his study, Cantril conducted detailed interviews with 135 persons and selected 100 who were "known to have been upset by the broadcast." Cantril also made clear that: "All names of respondents used in text are fictitious and identifying characteristics are disguised, but the true flavor of the case studies is preserved."
The new PBS documentary does not make this clear in the case of "Sylvia Holmes." It does not indicate that Sylvia Holmes is a pseudonym or that her words come from the Cantril study. Toward the end of the documentary, a written statement is shown on the screen stating: "The first person reports dramatized by actors in this program were taken from the accounts of actual listeners." That is true as far as it goes.
Socolow, in an email to me, points out that the Cantril study refers to "Sylvia Holmes, a panic-stricken Negro housewife who lived in Newark." Thus, Socolow writes, "the PBS documentary presents 'Sylvia Holmes as a 'panic-stricken Negro housewife' even though Cantril explicitly wrote that 'all names used in the text are fictitious and identifying characteristics are disguised.' So I'm curious why the documentary claims Sylvia Holmes was the real name of an actual person, and how the documentary producers knew she was 'a panic-stricken Negro housewife' when Cantril explicitly stated 'identifying characteristics are disguised.'"
Socolow calls the use of the Sylvia Holmes name and description "an egregious lapse in editorial judgment" and a "violation of PBS Editorial Standards and Policies" with respect to factual accuracy and providing appropriate labels and transparency.
American Experience Explains
First, let me say that the American Experience program never describes Sylvia Holmes, portrayed by an African-American actress in the broadcast, as a "panic-stricken Negro housewife." She is not described in any way. Viewers of the program can judge her words, which are real, on their own.
When I asked American Experience to respond, they made the following points: Of the 16 interviews recreated in the film, 14 of them are from actual letters written at the time to Welles, the CBS "Mercury Theatre" program that aired the original dramatization, or the Federal Communications Commission. These letters are archived mostly at the University of Michigan and the National Archives. A 15th is taken from a book and New York Times obituary.
As for "Sylvia Holmes," the program has this to say:
"We used an account published in Hadley Cantril's 'The Invasion From Mars' from 'Sylvia Holmes, a panic-stricken Negro housewife who lived in Newark.' Cantril's book is not a work of fiction, nor was he an author of fiction. The book is a researcher's published study of the broadcast. When Cantril wrote 'all names of respondents used in the text are fictitious and identifying characteristics are disguised' we understood this to mean disguised, as opposed to wholly fictional.
"In the report, for example, he gave details about some of the respondents that we had no reason to think were invented from whole cloth. For example, he describes a man who works at 'a filling station operation in Newark;' a woman who lives in 'a poor section of a large eastern city whose husband is a day laborer'; 'a young high school girl in Pennsylvania;' 'an ardent Catholic living in a New York suburb.'
"Our reasonable interpretation of the word 'disguised' was that Cantril omitted specific names and addresses of his interviewees and did not identify their specific places of work, what actual high school or literal church they attended, etc. We understood the description of Sylvia Holmes to be in this vein and in the interest of representing the diversity of the listening audience at that time, included her account.
"A report about the provenance of the sources of all recreated letters was submitted to the WGBH Legal Department prior to the broadcast of this program. The final card in the program was written to accurately accommodate for the variety of sources used for the first person accounts in the film."
A Technical Foul?
Technically, Socolow has a point about the way the "Sylvia Holmes" segment was portrayed. The producers could have somehow pointed out that Sylvia Holmes was not a real name, whereas the other 15 were. But I don't view this as a war crime or as a spiritual violation of PBS standards. Whatever her real name, she was a real person. Her words were recorded by Cantril. Was she a "Negro?" Who knows? Was that part of Cantril's attempt at "disguise" or was it the "housewife who lived in Newark" part?
Samels said in one earlier email to me, "This whole exchange [with the critics] is taking place within a conceptual bubble, an assumed world where everything is based on 'hard data' — a journalistic utopia of facts where everything is tangible and annotatable. Well, we made a film. A documentary film. Not an annotated lecture."
Referring to the background of all the letters, he said in another email, aside from the brief statement toward the end of the film, "such historiography didn't belong in the film. We try to strike a balance between engaging and entertaining an audience. Others, such as college professors, might find that balance at a different point.
"Our filmmaking team did their best to find out as much as they could about the letter writers," he wrote. "Often that trail was cold after seventy-five years. Knowing their words were real, the filmmakers tried to imagine the person writing them — their dress, their personalities, their comportment. We made the decision to put them on camera, rather than employ the more typical voice-over device, in order to bring them to life and put them on the same level as other protagonists in the story. Too often accounts of 'War of the Worlds' have focused on Welles or Grovers Mill, where the aliens supposedly landed. We wanted to focus on the Americans whose lives were affected that night, which for many was one of the most memorable of their lives."
One interesting thing about those actual letters is that they were discovered by a recent University of Michigan graduate and radio buff, A. Brad Schwartz, who looked over some 2,000 of them in the university and national archives.
After the program, Campbell called my attention to a recent USA Today interview with Schwartz in which he says that about 90 percent of the letters were favorable in tone. "A lot of them were from people who had heard the broadcast and weren't frightened by it, but were really upset when they read in the papers that so many people were. Like a lot of things," Schwartz told the paper, "there's a middle course. A lot of people were frightened by the show, (but) not statistically a lot." Campbell wrote, "If so, it appears the letters PBS selected amounted to a very unrepresentative sample."
American Experience doesn't buy that and said: "There is a glaring logical error in this assertion. The letters at the University of Michigan numbered in the hundreds, as do those at the National Archives. It doesn't matter how many could be characterized as favorable to the War of the Worlds radio broadcast or not . . . What is important, at least to us, is that our film reflected the range of responses to the broadcast, from angry calls for the creation of a radio czar to bemusement that anyone was gullible enough to be fooled. Welles was both praised and reviled by letter writers. Our film represents that spectrum of sentiments."
Beware the Unacknowledged Change
Socolow, ever alert to what he views as holes in the handling of this documentary, also noted that, in the aftermath of the program, PBS "altered the website for the 'War of the Worlds' with no acknowledgement of their corrections or revisions. I find this troubling and unethical," he said.
The key change is that the original text said, "Although most listeners understood that the program was a radio drama, thousands of other — perhaps a million or more — plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack." The latter version made two substantive changes. It read: "Although most listeners understood that the program was a radio drama, the next day's headlines reported that thousands of others plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack." The italic emphasis is mine and it goes to the point that critics, including me, had suggested — namely that the newspapers played a questionable role in the aftermath of the broadcast, and also suggests some greater caution on the numbers.
This was a good catch by Socolow, and I thought it was a good change for the program to make. But in keeping with web culture, some note could have been made of the revision from the earlier paragraph. Again, I don't think this was some gross lapse but it was worth calling attention to.
Asked about this, American Experience explained: "The copy we replaced was a very early promotional text that became outdated as the film developed. We routinely update our website, and do not make announcements when we do."
Surfing 75 Years Ago
Socolow, in another email, makes an additional criticism. "The documentary asserts," he says, "without any hard evidence or data, that 'millions of people' turned their dials [from another program] to Mercury Theatre of the Air during the Welles broadcast. Hadley Cantril offers percentages based on faulty AIPO [American Institute of Public Opinion] data . . . but he does not give an actual number of late arrivals/dial twisters. Because he can't." Socolow points out that WYNC public radio's Radiolab said in its treatment of the anniversary that "thousands, hundreds, we don't how many listeners, started to dial-surf." The idea that many people dial-surfed over to Welles only emerged later because the hard data did not match the sensational newspaper reporting. It was useful because it was basically impossible to prove or disprove in any way."
Here's the AE response: "Our film is not about what Mr. Socolow would like it to be about, which as far as we can tell seems to be some kind of statistical, data-driven analysis of how the media covered the radio broadcast. Print, particularly in the form of an academic paper, is a much better medium than film for this purpose. In our film, we chose to focus on the radio play's historical context, especially as it conditioned a range of reactions on the part of Americans across the country to what was indisputably a memorable night in 1938."
So what does this add up to? I come out pretty much where I started — finding the program valuable but convinced that its biggest flaw was failing to deal more thoroughly with the role that the press played after the broadcast in suggesting there was more panic than was actually the case. That, in my view, would have contributed to a more contextual public understanding of what actually happened in 1938.
In response to my column, Samels said: "To be sure, there is a story to be told about the extent to which the reports of panic were exaggerated by the press. However, that was not our story. Ours took its lead from the recently-discovered trove of letters that animate the film, a collection that demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that some Americans believed the broadcast to be factual and were frightened by it. Our film set out to understand why they felt that way, to explore what conditioned those responses, and to suggest that Americans seventy-five years ago were no more gullible or unsophisticated than we are today."
As for the critics, I'm pleased that Campbell, Socolow and others called attention to these issues. They make valuable contributions to an exchange of views and help hold producers' feet to the fire. But I'm not going to endorse Socolow's charges of unethical behavior and egregious breaches of PBS's own guidelines. I have called out PBS on occasion for violating those standards but I don't think that is what took place here.
In the overall scheme of things and in terms of what the viewers were presented with, I don't see these lapses as meriting assertions that ethical and standard lines had been breached. My experience tells me that however much producers generally may resent and reject this kind of criticism, it is healthy in the long run and leads to ever more care in what is to come.
This particular exchange, however, did stir up some very strong feelings. Here is how Executive Producer Samels concluded his response to my inquiries:
"Finally, a general comment on the campaign against War of the Worlds being conducted primarily by Mr. Socolow. Over the past month, his attacks against the film have been numerous and ever shifting, as if he was searching for something — anything — with which to discredit it. One minute he is questioning our use of letters to Welles, the next our decision to include diversity in our cast of actors who delivered those letters.
"What is most perplexing is that Mr. Socolow's own work, as best as we can tell, doesn't appear to stand in contradiction to our film. His statistical analysis of the media coverage of the event, and the ongoing controversy over whether the event was a form of mass hysteria or not, is an interesting aspect of a rich historical episode. That we chose a different focus shouldn't have posed such a threat to Mr. Socolow, but it clearly has.
"Previous American Experience films have been the subject of Ombudsman columns. While rarely enjoyable to be part of, they have often stimulated an exchange that was largely free of animus and often resulted in new insights. Mr. Socolow's campaign to discredit our film is of an entirely different nature. We stand firmly behind our film and the work of everyone who contributed to it, including our young student writer. We only wish Dr. Cantril were alive to defend his work as well."