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The Ombudsman Column

War of the Words

Sometimes, when journalists talk among themselves about stories they have read, the phrase "burying the lead" comes into the discussion. What is meant by that is a story that has important information way down inside the text, rather than at or near the top as journalistic formula traditionally dictates.

That phrase jumped into my head Tuesday night as I was watching "War of the Worlds," an hour-long documentary on PBS's history series, "American Experience."

The documentary marked the 75th anniversary of the famous hour-long drama with the same name that was broadcast on CBS radio's "Mercury Theatre on the Air" on the night of Oct. 30, 1938. The original program was billed as a dramatization of a novel written 40 years earlier by British author H.G. Wells titled "War of the Worlds." The radio adaptation was the work of another writer whose name was similar — a brilliant, 23-year-old producer named Orson Welles — and it skillfully used fake radio "news bulletins" to break into the program to report that Martians had, indeed, landed in New Jersey and were ravaging the locals.

The rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?

The 1938 radio broadcast is said to be the most famous of our time. It did indeed cause a ruckus in an America that was still in a severe economic depression, might be headed for a war in Europe, was just getting used to radio and got its spot news frequently from bulletins on the air.

A Broadcast Like No Other

Within the first minute of the PBS documentary, the narrator tells us, "Never before had a radio broadcast provoked such outrage, or such chaos. Upwards of a million people convinced, if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders, and a nation left to wonder how they possibly could have been so gullible."

On the screen we are immediately shown several banner newspaper headlines the next day from across the country. "Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact" was the way the New York Times front-page story was headlined. "Radio 'Martian Attack' Terrorizes U.S. Hearers, Thousands in Panic" bannered The Light of San Antonio. Others from Boston and Chicago portray a terrified and scared nation.

American Experience then goes on to tell the story of the broadcast and its impact through actors re-creating the reactions of frightened citizens.

We End This Narrative With Some News

But then, just seconds before the documentary ends, the narrator, just casually in his final summing up, includes this sentence: "Ultimately, the very extent of the panic would come to be seen as having been exaggerated by the press." 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? Could that be described by some as burying the lead?

On the morning following the broadcast — which was Halloween on Oct. 31, 1938 — the New York Daily News reported "unbelievable scenes of terror in New York, New Jersey, the South and as far west as San Francisco."

But in reviewing this week's American Experience documentary, the Daily News TV critic David Hinckley had this to say: ". . . this new 'American Experience' special on that famous broadcast spins a good yarn. Whether it's all true, well, it's still a good yarn. The legend, repeated here, is that Welles's hour-long drama about a Martian invasion threw America into panic. Fooled by the fake-newscast style of the program, the story goes, millions of listeners despaired, wept and poured into the streets, seeking refuge from imminent doom.

"Trouble is," Hinckley continued, "several recent articles have convincingly argued that while a modest number of folks didn't realize 'War of the Worlds' was just another production in a drama series they heard every week, the supposed panic was largely a creation of the press. (Imagine that.) There were, for instance, no confirmed accidents or injuries, which panics tend to generate . . . All that said, it's still a good story . . . But when a show flashes headlines about mass panic, and casually repeats suicide rumors, it should mention that there's also a yarn spinning around in here."

Well Done But . . .

In fairness to American Experience, which has been presenting highly-regarded and well-researched documentaries for a quarter century, the program was valuable, well done and careful in its narrated description of the scale of what happened, while at the same time re-creating the front-page news from coast-to-coast, with reports of jammed highways, traffic accidents, hordes of panicked people fleeing their homes and re-creations of general panic described by others at the time. The famous film director Peter Bogdanovitch, a close friend and collaborator of Welles, says "it scared half the country."

So my quarrel is not with what was presented but what, with the exception of one line at the end, was left out of a story that is indeed very famous, very instructive, continually cited and rarely complete or honest in the re-telling.

I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of "Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism" who headlined his comment: "PBS squanders opportunity to offer 'content that educates' in 'War of the Worlds' doc."

Campbell, who has written about the aftermath of the 1938 broadcast before, points out that "a growing body of scholarship — which the documentary completely ignored — has impugned the conventional wisdom and has offered a compelling counter narrative" that the "program sowed no widespread chaos and alarm." PBS, Campbell argued, "could have confronted head-on" whether the program actually did provoke hysteria and mass panic but failed to do so.

I asked American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels for his response to Campbell's critique and that is posted, in full, below.

Campbell's posting links to the work of other scholars who have criticized the reporting of the broadcast's aftermath, including Jeffrey Sconce, Edward J. Epstein and Michael Socolow. Another important post by Socolow and Jefferson Pooley appeared on Slate this week that seems to me to contain the argument that was most worthy of inclusion, even if briefly, in the American Experience program.

Here's a portion of what they wrote: "How did the story of panicked listeners begin? 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.

"In an editorial titled 'Terror by Radio,'" they reported, "the New York Times reproached 'radio officials' for approving the interweaving of 'blood-curdling fiction' with news flashes 'offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.' Warned Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry's trade journal, 'The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove . . . that it is competent to perform the news job.'"

Pooley and Socolow also describe a 1940 report by Princeton University academic Hadley Cantril, which is a primary source for reporting in the documentary, as "skewed" and as having "solidified the myth in the public mind."

Mark Samels' Response to W. Joseph Campbell

It is regretful that Mr. Campbell feels this was a missed opportunity to educate. The film went to great lengths to place the broadcast within a number of historical contexts, which offered multiple lenses through which to view the story. Some of those perspectives included the impact of the Depression domestically, as well as growing international hostilities; the history of media; the evolution of news broadcasting and the role of radio; human psychology; and the understanding of Mars and the understanding in 1938 whether it could support life. Many viewers responded in reviews and on social media that this contextualization was valuable to them.

Our film does not say that people panicked, nor does the script include the phrase "mass hysteria." Our script reads: " . . . upwards of a million people convinced, if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders . . . and a nation left to wonder how they possibly could have been so gullible." This is the only time we attempt to quantify the reaction to the radio broadcast in the film. Our source for that number came from Hadley Cantril's "Invasion from Mars" publication in 1940. Cantril's reputable research has been a primary source for many who have written on the broadcast, and we saw no compelling reason to not use it.

Mr. Campbell himself, in fact, repeats this sentiment in a recent interview with the BBC4. At 38:4, he says, "there may have been upwards of a million people or so who were frightened or disturbed, upset by what they heard, but that is far cry from engaging in panic or mass hysteria."

We did make a very conscious nod to the work Mr. Campbell and others have done in our final piece of narration: "Ultimately, the very extent of the panic would come to be seen as having been exaggerated by the press. But there was no disputing that something had happened that night in 1938 — and it would haunt the nation for decades to come." We have included his book in the bibliography on our website so that viewers wishing to dig deeper have resources such as Mr. Campbell's book available. If he would prefer, we would be happy to remove the reference to his book.