It's a great tale: Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 about a Martian invasion set off mass hysteria throughout America because people thought it was real. A new PBS documentary reinforces the story in honor of tomorrow's 75th anniversary. "There’s only one problem," write authors Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow at Slate. "The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast."
The authors go through the available data on ratings and conclude that few people were listening and the vast majority of those who were knew it was fiction. Assertions that people started tuning in as the program went on are pure speculation. So how did this urban legend grow? One big reason is that newspapers exaggerated the effects in screaming headlines the next morning. It wasn't just to sell papers, however. The industry wanted to discredit radio in the eyes of advertisers and the public, write Pooley and Socolow. Click for the full column. (Read more Orson Welles stories.)