Don't Panic

Friday, November 01, 2013


This week the 75th Anniversary of War of the Worlds passed by and the press recounted the familiar story of a nation plunged into panic by Orson Welles and the growing power of radio. Turns out, it’s much more complicated than that. Bob talks with Professor Michael Socolow, who says tales of nation-wide panic are overblown and can be traced to a nervous newspaper industry and faulty scholarship. Socolow and Jefferson Pooley wrote about War of the Worlds in Slate this week. 


Professor Michael Socolow

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield

Comments [10]

Michael Carraher from Philadelphia, PA

I read Cantril in grad school. It doesn't seem like Socolow did. Cantril did not say panic was pervasive. It happened in small pockets, mostly in urban neighborhoods in the Northeast. Some people tuned in to the Mercury Theater about 20 minutes in and were confused by what they heard. Some went outside and asked neighbors what was happening (not everybody had a phone). Then the neighbors asked other neighbors... What happened, Cantril found, was the "telephone game" at work. It wasn't about the power of the media (as media types like to believe). It was about the power of rumors.

Bob Garfield criticized journalists in general for not showing proper skepticism about the panic story. He should look to the beam in his own eye and not allow a guest from academia to advance his own career by criticizing a landmark study without reading the study himself.

Nov. 06 2013 05:44 PM
Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

I remember a programme on the BBC about the scare. A historian said that it wasn't "gullibility" that caused those that panicked to panic but the mood of the time. This was just before WWII and there was a general feeling of tension. People realised something was about to happen but didn't know what.

If you understand the psychology of stress you know that one of the symptoms is "scanning" (i.e. constantly on the lookout for the threat). Often innocent things are blown up into big threats simply because the observer is tense.

Nov. 05 2013 02:15 AM
Fred Welk from Fairfield CT

No panic? What about all the contemporary newspaper accounts shown in this week's PBS "The American Experience" episode?

Nov. 04 2013 07:26 PM

OK, it was 1938, but Welles says in his intro assessment of things at the time "the war scare was over" - Neville Chamberlain would be comforted.

Nov. 04 2013 03:49 PM

I misread the comment from Alabama (pardon), but I would hesitate to draw a parallel with regard to ACA/Obamacare coverage. The one that could be drawn would be the then (and to some extant still) media hegemony of the New York "market" and the subsequent description of the event as "nation-wide" but lest we forget, Halloween 1939 had just seen the invasion of Poland. Advances in science were such that the notion of Martians was not so far-fetched, but still easy to snicker at. Welles cited at the news conference (he generated) that he didn't use real place names as had been done by HG Wells in Britain; this is a distinction without a difference with rural New Jersey towns to a New York audience (and largely North Jersey) and Welles knew it.

Nov. 04 2013 03:35 PM

Ha ha, a "grumpy 911 official"! Not all media is the same. Try a chem-spill story up in Maine where they just had a train crash killing scores in Quebec. Science fiction is great, in a cinema, DVD. Lily from Minnesota has the sense to realize that things may have been different elsewhere. Welles didn't get a "nation-wide" panic, but he did scare the New York "market" as my mother, a Bell telephone operator in Jersey City that night, attested. Frantic people pleaded to her, unable to call out, to know the fate of loved ones further west, where the "reports" were coming from. The switchboards lit up and stayed lit, causing the system to go down, ALL circuits were busy, blocked. An ambulance couldn't be called in Hudson County if needed. These two smug twits debunking something that happened in pre-World War 2 America do public radio an injustice, as seen by the Alabama comment.

Nov. 04 2013 02:51 PM
Robert s. Davis from Hanceville, Alabama

The media acts like a school of fish or a herd of sheep, following the same story the same way without looking at what it is following or why. Non sense stories get attention and real issues go ignored. The uniformly negative coverage of the Affordable Health Coverage Act in all of the media, even to repeating lies over and over, is a recent example but true every day in almost every way.

Nov. 03 2013 09:13 PM
Lily Winter from Minnesota

If it is true there was no panic, why could I watch a newsreel this morning of Orson Welles being confronted by a dozen reporters, allegedly the morning after the incident, during which he apologized to the nation and said that he was unaware of the panic he had caused?

And why, according to the documentary broadcast on my local NPR station last week, did John Houseman have to physically block radio executives from coming into the studio to stop the broadcast?

Nov. 03 2013 05:55 PM
Ruth from Oregon

My mom listened to the original "War of the Worlds" broadcast as a young adult. She always told me she found it very hard to believe there was any panic. She said the program was clearly introduced as a radio play, and while there were fake commercial breaks during the program, there were also real breaks. Following the real breaks, the program would be re-introduced as fiction.

As a result of my mom's story (heard multiple times as a child) I've always been a bit skeptical about the probable extent of the panic. I found myself repeatedly nodding my head as I listened to Professor Socolow's report. Thanks for the program.

Sincerely yours,
Portland, Oregon

Nov. 02 2013 10:19 PM
Elizabeth from Holland, MI

Thought you'd enjoy a modern day footnote to your War of the Worlds segment. This Halloween a Traverse City, Michigan radio station played a variation on the theme mentioning a chemical spill leading to zombie-like behavior. The broadcast resulted in at least three 911 calls (and a grumpy 911 official).

Fake Traverse City radio broadcast on chemical spill, zombies leads to 911 calls

Nov. 02 2013 07:38 PM

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