I love this article on Slate from Jefferson Pooley (associate professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College) and Michael Socolow (associate professor of communication and journalist at the University of Maine) who recently published the book War of the Worlds to Social Media. I haven’t read it, but the article makes me want to.
I have a special soft spot for urban legends and popular myths. It’s interesting that they attribute this one not to word of mouth but to intentional manipulation by a jealous print media.
But even beyond that, the authors make an interesting case for why we should care about the truth behind this legend (bold mine):
Why is this myth so alluring—why does it persist? The answer is complicated, most likely reflecting everything from the structure of our commercial broadcasting system and of our federal regulation, as well as our culture’s skepticism about the mass audience and the fear that always accompanies the excitement of new media. Even today, broadcast networks must convince advertisers that they retain commanding powers over their audiences. As such, CBS has regularly celebrated the War of the Worlds broadcast and its supposed effect on the public. In 1957, Studio One, a CBS anthology series, dramatized the panic as “The Night America Trembled,” and when the network celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2003, War of the Worlds was a noted highlight. On the other side of the coin, federal regulators must still persuade politicians that there exists an important protective role for the guardians of the airwaves. For both broadcasters and regulators, War of the Worlds provides excellent evidence to justify their claims about media power.
What a great way to contemplate history, media messaging and a really good piece of performance art on Halloween.
The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic, Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow, Slate.com, October 28, 2013
(As an aside, they reference RadioLab’s reporting on War of the Worlds a couple of times. I like the program, but have often found that they fall a little short when they delve into history. Makes me remember that there is a reason we also need trained historians)