Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds, and the ‘panic of 1938’

What do they teach us about press freedom in the West today?

SF Chronicle Oct 31 6am Extra with headline 'Panic Sweeps U.S. as Radio Stages Mars Raid'

(Leer en español en Voces)

What’s the right model of the major news media operating in the democratic West?

Some people say: the free-market model. Most will agree it’s not a perfect fit. They recognize flaws, biases, and interests. But, still, they consider the various news companies to be real competitors, independent of each other and also autonomous from government.

Those who see it this way consider that the news can be reasonably trusted, because free and independent competitors have an incentive to expose each other’s irrelevancies, exaggerations, errors, and lies, causing false narratives to enjoy poor stability.

Other people—increasingly numerous in the wake of Donald Trump and the COVID pandemic—complain about fake news, censorship, and misinformation. Post-truth, they call it. They perceive mainstream narratives as untrustworthy and worry that media companies seem in thrall to power and/or compromised by ideology.

Some people even suspect that that the major news-media companies might perhaps be joined clandestinely and centrally governed as a hidden monopoly, and that we’ve been living, for some time, in a media-managed post-truth reality.

Can this be investigated? Sure. Anything can be investigated—so long as we stay within the bounds of critical-scientific thinking.

The great teacher of critical thinking, the philosopher of science Karl Popper, once explained that, to have a real hypothesis, you should be able to say what evidence—if found—would undermine its validity. If you can’t or won’t do this, then you don’t have a hypothesis but a religious belief, and such are outside the purview of critical-scientific thinking.

Thus, for example, if I take the position that no presentation of data can—even in principle—ever be sufficient to reject the free-market hypothesis, then I cling to my hypothesis religiously. To do science, I must be open to possibility and humbled before the evidence, and that requires me to state the conditions under which I would begin to doubt my own hypothesis.

For conceptual clarity, then, I’ll go to the extreme and say what sort of evidence, if found, would not merely undermine the free-market hypothesis but would destroy it utterly.

Here it is: If you can document that all major news media in the West, on something of enormous relevance and importance, have been knowingly telling the same lie, and for decades, then the free-market hypothesis may be rejected. Because such extreme, conscious, longitudinally stable, and universally mendacious behavior is impossible without a comprehensive cartel. And a comprehensive cartel is the exact opposite of a free news market.

So long as facts with this extreme structure have not been documented, however, one may still reasonably model the news market as one enjoying some degree of freedom.

So let us consider the ‘panic of 1938,’ the story of Orson Welles’s famous 1938 broadcast on CBS, because this is considered the most extreme case of fake news in the democratic West creating a dangerous reality for citizens. It will be useful to try and see which model of the news media—on a continuum from pristine free-market, at one end, to clandestinely directed monopoly, at the other—is more consistent with this event.

The Martians are coming!

Remember that day? You may have heard of it. It’s one of those things: a tremendous historical episode. On October 30th, 1938, they tell us, Americans from coast to coast rushed out in a mass panic to escape Martian invaders whom they believed (with utter conviction) were zapping humans to death from their spaceships.

Are you laughing? I wasn’t joking. In schools of communication, where our media workers are professionalized, this is a much-discussed event. It appears in every communications textbook. And it is supposed to teach us something about the effect on modern humans of mass-media broadcasting.

Why that? Because the cause of this national mass hysteria, they say, was a radio play—a dramatization of The War of the Worlds, a late-19th-century novel.

The War of the Worlds was written by science-fiction pioneer H.G. Wells. It narrates an attempted Martian genocide of humanity halted at the last minute by terrestrial pathogens to which the alien invaders, without immunity, finally succumb: a simple bloodbath that conquered a devoted audience. Among its fans was the multi-talented actor, director, writer, and producer Orson Welles (of Citizen Kane immortal fame). In 1938, Welles adapted The War of the Worlds as a radio drama for CBS, with the first flying saucers touching down in New Jersey.

Welles had style. The broadcast opened with a simulated news bulletin that reported on the strange happenings and which—in a nice touch—interrupted a simulated dance-music program (à la national emergency announcement). A fusillade of additional fake news bulletins then followed which, for a full forty minutes, gave a breathless, blow-by-blow account of advancing alien ravages and the futile attempts by various authorities to stop the mass murder.

The rest of the story is famous: Americans, taking these bulletins seriously—that is, believing they were hearing real news—became convinced that an alien invasion was in progress and plunged into mass hysteria. “ ‘By the next morning,’ ” recalls a 2013 PBS documentary (aired to commemorate the event’s 75th anniversary),

  • “ ‘the panic broadcast was front-page news from coast to coast, with reports of traffic accidents, near riots, hordes of panicked people in the streets, all because of a radio play.’ ”[1]

My own father wasn’t alive yet when this notorious CBS program aired. And yet, like everyone else, I grew up hearing from my parents, from TV personalities, from my teachers, from the occasional documentary or show, and from academic books and popular histories, about the day that giant multitudes of Americans went crazy because Welles had conned them into thinking that aliens from Mars were invading the Earth.

It’s a big deal. The story of this con has been passed on as a signpost of Western history, like Pearl Harbor or the sinking of the Titanic: a stunning event that left a deep impression on that generation, on their kids, and their grandkids.

And its memory is not shared as mere historical drama but also as a moral lesson, a cautionary tale of human behavior.

In my native Mexico we shake our heads. How could they all run to save themselves because they thought the Martians had landed? It helps with our self-esteem: yes, the Gringos are rich, technologically advanced, and the bosses of everything, but so naïve!

If you’re from the US, though, you probably think the problem was that moment in history: Americans of that generation were still getting used to radio.

But since media technology is always evolving, and there is no getting used to that, there is a powerful—and universally felt—moral to this story: the mass media are powerful. They create reality. Skillfully handled, they may tip a population into mass panic. And that is how students at modern schools of communication, prodded by their textbooks and professors, are made to reflect on the 1938 broadcast.

But hold on. Does this event really make such a strong case that the media can shape our reality? Well, that seems to depend on the following question:

How significant was the panic?

Abraham Lincoln’s famously optimistic phrase was:

  • You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

Applied here, consider that, even in the extreme version, which has the entire country in a panic, it’s still only for one day—fooled all of the people, yes, but, as Lincoln says, only briefly.

And should we even concede the extreme version? How many people really panicked? The traditional claim—of a country-wide panic—is an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims, as the saying goes, require extraordinary evidence.

One is perfectly entitled to ask: Were people really fooled—even for a day? Could a radio show really get millions or even thousands of Americans to rush out in a panic because they thought the aliens were coming? Did that really happen? Where is the extraordinary evidence?

It doesn’t exist!

Or so say historians Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow in an article published in Slate with the headline: “The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic: Orson Welles’s infamous 1938 radio program did not touch off nationwide. Why does the legend persist?” The piece was published in 2013 to coincide with the above-mentioned PBS documentary. These historians accused PBS of broadcasting a traditional but entirely false story.

I have found Pooley & Socolow’s presentation on this convincing. In what follows I explain why.

First: The 1938 CBS show didn’t pretend to be real

One gets the impression—it’s part of the popular myth—that Welles sprang his show on unsuspecting Americans, all (somehow) simultaneously tuned to his station. It is also widely believed that Welles tried to make everyone think they were listening to the actual news.

Both beliefs are false.

Welles’s didn’t spring anything on anyone. His program Mercury Theatre on the Air had been running for months and was broadcast at a scheduled time. His dramatization of The War of the Worlds, like every other show, had been announced in the listings, where it was explicitly billed as fiction: a new take on H.G. Wells’s famous novel. The on-air introduction and conclusion to the show likewise presented it as fiction. And so did several reminders during the show that interrupted the broadcast to emphasize once again the show’s fictional nature!

CBS and Orson Welles had left little room for anyone to take the show literally.

Moreover, Mercury Theatre had a relatively small audience. According to statistics collected the very night of Welles’s broadcast, which Pooley & Socolow have examined, “98 percent of those surveyed were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938.”

And yet the 2013 PBS documentary speaks of “hordes of panicked people in the streets”—hordes—who, in their terror, lost all control, so that “near riots” gripped the United States “from coast to coast,” including, says PBS, lots of “traffic accidents.”

Is that so? But then there should have been a spike in the hospital statistics. It ain’t there. As Pooley & Socolow explain,

  • “researchers [who] surveyed six New York City hospitals six weeks after the broadcast [found that] ‘none of them had any record of any cases brought in specifically on account of the broadcast.’ ”[2]

Wait. No cases? Not one?

How about nationally? At most one: the Washington Post “reported that one Baltimore listener died of a heart attack during the show.” Yet even this might be false: “unfortunately no one followed up to confirm the story or provide corroborative details.”[3]

But didn’t anybody challenge the newspaper claims at the time?

Yes. For example, in the Washington Post archives Pooley & Socolow found a letter by a dismayed reader, published four days after the ‘event.’ He reported witnessing “ ‘nothing approximating mass hysteria,’ ” and added: “ ‘In many stores radios were going, yet I observed nothing whatsoever of the absurd supposed ‘terror of the populace.’ There was none.’ ”[4]

So, for the extraordinary claim that a mass panic gripped the US, the extraordinary evidence is missing. In fact, one cannot find evidence, extraordinary or otherwise. Ergo, Pooley & Socolow conclude, there was no such mass panic.

And guess who agrees with them? Frank Stanton.

At the time of Welles’s broadcast, Frank Stanton—who would later become head of all CBS and would run it for many years—was CBS’s head researcher in charge of audience-response statistics. His team conducted “twenty-five hundred personal interviews” the day after the infamous CBS broadcast. When Stanton was interviewed himself during the period 1994-97 for a book about him, he finally shared what his 1938 research efforts had revealed. He said:

  • “ ‘The research showed that most people saw it for what it was. In the first place, most people didn’t hear [the broadcast]. … But those who did hear it, looked at it as a prank and accepted it that way.’ ”[5]

According to the person best placed to know, then, no mass panic.

But does this really undermine the perception of the media’s power to shape our reality?

Ironically, no. There’s an Escher flip here: if there was no mass panic, then the lie was the claim of a mass panic.

And this is a much bigger lie.

It didn’t last one day but three quarters of a century (Pooley & Socolow’s debunking piece in Slate came in 2013). And it didn’t fool lots of people—it fooled everybody. We all—Mexicans and Gringos and everyone else—believed the story of the mass panic for decades (most still do). More than fake news, this is a fake historical event. A spectacular con.

Lincoln’s position—so moderate—now seems wrong: You can fool all of the people all of the time.

But how did the unsupported claim of a ‘mass panic’ become ‘the historical record’?

 “Blame America’s newspapers,” write Pooley & Socolow. People trusted the newspapers, and the newspapers—all of them, it seems—‘reported’ a mass panic.

That newspaper lie might have been terribly unstable, the authors explain, but it soon received the academic support of Princeton University’s Hadley Cantril, whose research volume about the CBS broadcast established the alleged mass panic as a ‘historical event.’

Cantril claimed to have documented that one million souls panicked with Welles’s dramatization of The War of the Worlds. To get that number, Cantril relied on a “skewed report compiled six weeks after the broadcast”—in other words, six weeks after the newspaper headlines had already influenced everybody to believe that a mass panic had taken place.

This report, “by the American Institute of Public Opinion [AIPO],” used a curiously unrepresentative “cherry-picked data set” of “homes without telephones and small communities,” which is to say of people who had no eyewitness experience or even good second-hand reports of what had happened (or not) in the cities.[6]

And Cantril chose to interpret as ‘panicked’ those who said they had been either ‘frightened,’ or ‘disturbed,’ or ‘excited’ by the CBS broadcast.

With this methodology, any suspenseful drama can be ‘shown’ to have caused a ‘mass panic.’

The culturally celebrated research volume that Cantril authored, The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic (1940), became the authoritative voice for others to cite, going forward.

  • “[Cantril’s] scholarly book validated the popular memory of the event. He gave academic credence to the panic … He remains the only source with academic legitimacy who claims there was a sizable panic. Without this validation, the myth likely would not be in social psychology and mass communication textbooks, as it still is today—pretty much every high schooler and liberal arts undergraduate runs across it at some point. … Though you may have never heard of Cantril, the War of the Worlds myth is very much his legacy.”[7]

No mass con can succeed without Science

Cantril’s centrality to this con makes an interesting point about the Fourth Estate.

The press is often called ‘the Fourth Estate’—a fourth institutional branch of democracy to balance the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. As Thomas Carlyle said in the 19th c., musing on the Fourth Estate’s power: “the requisite thing is that [one] have a tongue which others will listen to.”[8]

Scientists have such a tongue. They create reality every time we passively accept reports in the media about what ‘scientists say,’ or what ‘scientists have shown,’ or what ‘scientists have found’ and make such understandings the background for our worldview and democratic discussions. The claim of a scientific consensus on the hypothesis of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming, for example, has had profound political and economic effects all around the world.

In my view, therefore, academic science should be added to the press in an Extended Fourth Estate. This will recognize the unique contribution that scientific research makes to political democracy. For science is democracy’s last line of defense. Even should the press malfunction, scientists working in a reasonably free, independent, and competitive scientific market may expose any such malfunction. If they cannot, or will not, then a media malfunction may take authoritative root and become one with our understanding of history.

We can see this relationship in the War of the Worlds episode. If Princeton’s Hadley Cantril had not given the respectability of ‘science’ to the claims of the ‘mass panic’ story; or if later scholars—instead of simply repeating Cantril’s claims—had done the job that Pooley, Socolow, and others have now finally done; and if such work had been incorporated into the textbooks, then the ‘mass panic’ story would scarcely have been believed for three quarters of a century. “Every high schooler and liberal arts undergraduate” wouldn’t have been hearing about it from authoritative teachers who lecture out of authoritative textbooks.

For a historical mass deception to endure, then, a malfunctioning media is not enough; academics must either assist it or fall prey to it themselves. This episode therefore raises troubling questions about establishment academia—at least where Cantril’s field of communications research is concerned.

But perhaps I am conning you?

The thought may have occurred to you. Or perhaps I’ve been conned by Pooley & Socolow’s revisionist history and am unwittingly cooperating in their fraud? These are healthy questions to ask yourself. Asking such questions is what critical thinking is all about.

The most responsible thing would be to carefully examine all of Pooley & Socolow’s arguments and documentation. But that’s time consuming. You have other things. Is there a short cut? I think so.

Pooley & Socolow have rivals. These are historians vested in the past being what they say, not what Pooley & Socolow say. Because of that contrary interest, these rival historians have a career-building positive incentive to find errors of argument, documentation, or both in Pooley & Socolow’s work.

Enter Brad Schwartz, who will here perform a valuable functional role.

Shwartz writes that Pooley & Socolow “try too hard to correct the conventional wisdom.” That is a strongly felt opinion, judging by the fact that Schwartz—explicitly in the teeth of Pooley & Socolow’s demonstration—has written an entire book to try and salvage something from the original ‘mass panic’ story: Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.[9] If anybody wants to find a problem with Pooley & Socolow’s work, that’s Brad Schwartz.

Can he?

Schwartz notes that “scholars around the turn of the [21st] century began to question whether the panic was really as large as Cantril and others suggested.” Where does he stand? Schwartz agrees with these scholars that newspapers in 1938 presented “little hard evidence” to back their claims.

Schwartz also echoes the charges leveled by Pooley and Socolow against Cantril’s The Invasion from Mars, calling it “Cantril’s flawed study.”

And he criticizes those (for example, David Ropeik) who at the 75th anniversary of the CBS broadcast were still claiming that “millions” had panicked, when even Cantril—who suppressed good data and inflated tainted data—never claimed more than a million.[10]

So far, you will notice, not one disagreement with Pooley & Socolow.

But what about Pooley & Socolow’s claim that “almost nobody was fooled by Welles’s broadcast”? Is this, finally, too extreme for Schwartz? Does he think this is Pooley & Scolow “try[ing] too hard to correct the conventional wisdom”? Apparently not. Those who were “indeed frightened,” Schwartz concedes, were “relatively few in number.”[11]

But still, Schwartz wishes to rescue something from the traditional mass panic story and pleads that we not overlook “stories [that] are worthy of examination and explanation.”[12]

The story of John and Estelle Paultz, for example. Boasting pride-of-place as Schwartz’s opening story, this tale, apparently his favorite, is generously peppered with superlatives in a competently breathless prose. Yet the story, for me, never lifts.

Deciding rather hastily that Welles’s show was a real news broadcast, the Paultzes rushed to get a train out of Manhattan, failing to notice along the way to the station any other Martian-genocide fugitives. Just another day on the streets. (Perhaps they felt a bit silly.)

Once on the train to Hartford, finding their fellow passengers inexplicably becalmed and ignorant, John and Estelle labored to spread their panic to them. This caused some concern—mostly about John and Estelle. Passengers argued forcefully against the notion that Martians had landed.

One of them mentioned Orson Welles to John, who “turned to his wife and, shouting to make his voice heard over the ruckus, asked, ‘Who is Orson Welles?’ ” Estelle knew. A pause. A lightbulb. “Estelle shouted out for a newspaper,” got it, and found the CBS show in the radio listings. The brief excitement fizzled.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum?

Unless you think John and Estelle Paultz making fools of themselves for a New-York minute on a train to Hartford can be called a ‘mass panic,’ then it is safe to accept—as Schwartz himself does—Pooley & Socolow’s revision: there was no mass panic. The newspapers made it up.

But why did the newspapers do this?

Pooley & Socolow make the following observation about how the newspapers ‘covered’ the alleged ‘mass panic’ that never was:

  • “In an editorial titled ‘Terror by Radio,’ 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.’ ”[13]

So Pooley & Socolow’s hypothesis says that the dailies meant to discredit radio because “radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the [Great] Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry.” The dailies wanted that business back. So, when Welles broadcast over radio his War of the Worlds news-flash dramatization,

  • “the papers seized the opportunity … to discredit radio as a source of news […] to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.”[14]

The phrase “seized the opportunity” means this: all together, in solidary unity, the newspapers printed fake headlines to convince the public that Orson Welles’s broadcast had damaged the nation.

This hypothesis, which historians Pooley & Socolow present to us, is precisely the sort of thing that people call a ‘conspiracy theory,’ for it claims, quite explicitly, that all newspaper bosses conspired to print fake news.

That’s… remarkable. Because in academic (and also media) circles, it is considered very bad form to propose a conspiracy theory. And perhaps that’s why Pooley & Socolow prefer not to make a special point of this (because they don’t). Yet, they are in a bind, because their documented facts are simply impossible if the newspaper market in 1938 was free and competitive.

In a free market—as opposed to a hidden monopoly or cartel—every news provider has an incentive to expose the lies, exaggerations, distortions, and errors of rivals, because this builds your prestige as a truthteller while undermining the prestige of competitors, which leads to larger market share and increased advertising revenue. No free newspaper can resist demonstrating to the public that its rivals are pushing an enormous and completely false story—this is what a free newspaper lives for.

But couldn’t there be a kind of ‘herding instinct’?, people have asked me. Let’s say that one big, influential newspaper told the lie, and then every other newspaper got on the bandwagon and repeated it? Not Machiavellianism—just… laziness.

People can be lazy. And lots of small papers no doubt cannot do their own research and will simply repeat what the New York Times says. But if the big papers, at least, were competing with each other in 1938, then each had an incentive to check the story of this alleged nationwide panic and expose it for what it was: a con.

It seems, however, that not one major newspaper did this.

Pooley & Socolow thus find themselves reluctantly backing into the hypothesis of a newspaper cartel—and so disciplined that it suffered not one defection from the collective effort to defeat radio.[15]

Frankly, I don’t like this hypothesis. But not because it is a bold conspiracy theory. What bothers me is that it cannot explain the data. There is this one, GIANT, inconvenient fact: CBS apologized for the ‘mass panic’!

Why did CBS have Orson Welles apologize?

Slide your feet, for a minute, into William Paley’s expensive and impeccably polished shoes. You are now the media mogul owner of CBS. Your situation is like this: the entire newspaper industry has just accused you of causing a mass panic in the United States. They are calling for regulators to muzzle your freedom to deliver news.

You are a media mogul—larger than life. Are you going to take that lying down? Or are you going to get Frank Stanton on the phone?

Frank Stanton is your CBS researcher collecting audience-response statistics. And he knows, from the data, that no mass panic took place (see above). He can prove it, he tells you. What do you do? Why, you use the awesome power of radio at your fingertips to tell the truth: there was no mass panic!; the newspapers are lying! And you force the newspapers to take their boomerang on the head. And you get to wear this tremendous glow about you, that all can see, shining as the new—and truly trustworthy—source of news.

That’s what you do. But that’s not what William Paley did. He had Orson Welles give a press conference to apologize for the alleged mass panic.

“Welles’s greatest performance that evening,” writes Michael Socolow, “wasn’t in the studio; it was in a hallway, at the improvised news conference, when he feigned a stunned, apologetic demeanor.”[16]

Why does Socolow believe that Welles was feigning his contrition at that press conference? I checked the footnote. His eyewitness is Howard Koch, one of the writers working at CBS with Welles. In The Medium and the Magician, Paul Heyer writes:

  • “[Koch] was present … and suspected a Wellesian ruse. He saw verification of it when the proceedings ended. Welles and [his collaborator John] Houseman exited simultaneously from different doors, turned toward each other, and without saying a word, exchanged congratulatory gestures.”[17]

Mission accomplished. But what was the mission?

According to Koch, the “Wellesian ruse” was this: Orson Welles had meant to create a mass panic all along—that was his whole idea—but now he needed to look surprised, like he never intended this outcome, in order to protect CBS and himself from possible liability. Hence: acting (Welles was a talented actor).

Is Koch’s interpretation reasonable? Not for someone who already knows that no mass panic took place. Because the best way for CBS and Welles to defend themselves from possible liability was simply to refute the false claim. Hence, Welles’s phony contrition at that press conference, so palpable to Koch, admits of a different interpretation: Welles was collaborating with the lie that CBS had caused a mass panic.

Do other elements of context support this alternative interpretation? They do.

Welles’s father, an amateur magician, had taught his child the craft. “I took lessons as a boy the way kids play the fiddle and so on. So I was a real wunderkind with a pack of cards,” he told an interviewer. But as an adult, the younger Welles’s strongest suit, according to his own testimony, was

  • “what we call ‘mentalism,’ mind reading and all that jazz… just a gigantic bluff in other words, which is far easier than keeping the fingers in trim.”[18]

Mentalism harnesses run-of-the-mill assumptions of which people are hardly aware. An old trick is the loaded question. At a cocktail party, ask someone (ostensibly in private but so others can overhear), “Hey, Tim, have you stopped beating your wife?” No matter what he answers—even, in fact, if he denies the premise—Tim is in a bind, because eavesdroppers will implicitly think: “Who would ask a question like that if Tim was not beating his wife?”

At the press conference, Welles was not asking a question but making a statement: some variant of: “Sorry for that national mass panic; totally didn’t mean to do that.” Yet the structure is the same. The mind implicitly thinks: there was a national mass panic; else, why is Welles apologizing?

A “gigantic bluff.”

Orson Welles completed that gigantic bluff by ‘confessing,’ later, that he supposedly had intended to create a panic (the one that never happened—that one). “Yes, he told Peter Bogdanovich, the effect achieved [in 1938] was the one hoped for, but the extent of it was ‘flabbergasting.’ ”[19]


You never drop the con; you die with the lie. That’s a famous line from the movie Focus, where an accomplished conman (Will Smith) teaches the principles of his craft to an apprentice (Margot Robbie). Orson Welles had this principle down—he was no apprentice.

What is the deeper point? It is this: Given that Paley, Stanton, and Welles, instead of defending CBS from a dramatic and false accusation, chose to cooperate with the newspaper con of a ‘mass panic,’ as—indeed—the other radios did too, we find that all major media active in 1938 colluded to sell this lie to the public.

Pooley & Socolow’s conspiracy theory is hardly bold enough.

And it appears we have met the extreme condition, stipulated at the outset, for rejecting the free-market hypothesis of the major news media—at least for the year 1938.

What about TV?

Though television, in 1938, was still in its infancy, it would soon become a powerful news medium in its own right. So why, in all these years, did television not debunk the newspaper and radio lies about the ‘mass panic’ that never was?

Where the private TV networks are concerned there is no additional mystery, for these emerged from the private radio networks—they’re the same companies.

But PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service), the government’s TV network, claims to have a ‘public service’ mission. So I ask: When PBS made a documentary in 2013 to mark the 75th anniversary of the 1938 CBS broadcast, why didn’t they expose the mass-panic story for a con and a myth?

Imagine you were the producer of that PBS show. You get to do, should you make the choice, the big reveal on a giant, 75-year-old scandal. A spectacular con, still running today, played on American citizens by—by whom? By your rivals in private news media!


And the scandal will not only boost ratings but will enhance the perception of government as protector of citizens from corporate abuse.

But no. Instead of doing the exciting, audience-boosting, prestige-enhancing thing, the thing that was presumably in PBS’s own interest, the producers chose instead to produce a comparatively lukewarm documentary that just recycled what everyone already believed. (NPR did the same.)

This was not—mind you—out of ignorance. For while the PBS documentary was being prepared, as Pooley & Socolow have pointedly complained, PBS producers spoke with the two historians about the myth-busting research yet chose not to discuss that in the film.[20]

It is worth asking: What model of the news media in 2013 can make natural sense of these behaviors? We need one.

Does Pooley & Socolow’s research matter to public perceptions?

True, Pooley & Socolow’s myth-busting research did appear in Slate. But did that affect anyone? Can they compete with PBS?

Well, consider this. In May 2022, almost a decade after Pooley & Socolow published in Slate, famous US comedian Bill Maher, in the middle of his opening monologue on Real Time with Bill Maher, made the following claim:

  • “In 1938 radio was the hot medium of the day and lots of people got plenty worked up about it especially after Orson Welles presented what was obviously a fictitious drama about a Martian invasion of New Jersey and thousands of people thought it was real and panicked.”

Maher is something of a cultural bellwether here because Real Time has been averaging more than a million viewers. Moreover, Maher bills himself, not unreasonably, as someone who talks common sense and debunks misinformation. So if Bill Maher doesn’t get it, then Slate—with subscribers in the low thousands—didn’t change public perceptions on the 1938 ‘mass panic.’

The con lives.

Further questions

Some further questions are worth pursuing. For example: How was it that all newspapers and radio were organized in 1938 to tell everyone the same gigantic lie? Who was behind that? And why would they want us to believe that radio caused a mass panic in 1938?

I think I’ve found some interesting clues.

In 1928, ten years before Orson Welles’s broadcast on CBS, the legendary Edward Bernays—considered by many (certainly by himself) as the father of public relations and marketing—published a book with the remarkably candid title Propaganda in which he argued for a peculiar form of ‘democracy.’

According to Bernays propaganda is good for us because “the orderly function of group life” is impossible unless we have “our tastes formed, [and] our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” Citizens, he argued, should trust—perforce blindly—in these few, invisible men “who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses.” It is they, he explained, “who pull the wires which control the public mind, …[and] harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.”[21]

Anyway, like it or not, according to Bernays this was all happening already. His book in fact opens with the following:

  • “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”[22]

Was Bernays raving mad? Or did he know something?

During WWI, Eddie Bernays had been hired explicitly to do psychological warfare by the US government’s Committee on Public Information (CPI). Ernest Poole, who recruited him, wrote that “ ‘[his] abilities are unquestionably remarkable.’ ”[23] About his CPI experiences, Bernays later reflected:

  • “ ‘There was one basic lesson I learned in the CPI, that efforts comparable to those applied by the CPI to affect the attitudes of the enemy, of neutrals, and people of this country could be applied with equal facility to peacetime pursuits. In other words, what could be done for a nation at war could be done for organizations and people in a nation at peace.’ ”[24] (my emphasis)

But this sort of thing called for a scientific research effort into the effects of mass media on the US citizenry during peacetime—just the sort of thing that Frank Stanton and Hadley Cantril (whom we met above) were doing by the 1930s. Michael Socolow writes:

  • “[Hadley] Cantril, a Princeton social psychologist; [Frank] Stanton [from CBS]; and [Paul] Lazarsfeld had created the Office of Radio Research, a Rockefeller Foundation-supported project based at Princeton [University] that can be considered the first significant attempt to empirically analyze the effects of mass media.”[25]

When you describe it like that it sounds rather innocent—nothing like what Bernays was saying. Internally, however, the Rockefeller Foundation discussed this research precisely along Bernays’ lines: as an effort to develop psychological warfare techniques for use on the US civilian population during peacetime. And the scientists doing this on the payroll of the Rockefeller family—the richest, most powerful family in the world—would soon establish the academic field of ‘communications.’

This is all documented in historian Christopher Simpson’s book Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960.

The top theorists in this effort, Simpson writes, were Harold Laswell and Walter Lippmann (yes, the ‘father of modern journalism’). The first drew on his 1926 dissertation on what the CPI had learned about mass-manipulation during wartime; the second, on his own experience working for the CPI during the war. Echoing Bernays, these two theorists argued that you and I cannot govern ourselves; ‘democratic’ power elites equipped with ‘communication research’ should therefore manage and steer us.[26]

At a Rockefeller-sponsored seminar, Lasswell argued that “The elite of U.S. society (‘those who have money to support research,’ as Lasswell bluntly put it) should systematically manipulate mass sentiment.” They should, in other words, manage our reality—and its meaning—in order to force people indirectly, without seeming to. One lonely seminar outlier, Donald Slesinger, bitterly protested that this would be “ ‘the establishment of dictatorship-by-manipulation.’ ”[27]

Comes the question: Was the Rockefeller-funded Office of Radio Research at Princeton conducting field tests in mass manipulation?

That research center was linked to CBS via Frank Stanton, where Frank Stanton measured audience response, and via William Paley—CBS’s owner—who was close to the Rockefeller brothers Nelson and David. And there was also, as Christopher Simpson documents, a link to something else.

  • “Cantril’s career had been closely bound up with U.S. intelligence and clandestine psychological operations since at least the late 1930s. The Office of Public Opinion Research, for example, enjoyed confidential contracts from the Roosevelt administration for research into U.S. public opinion on the eve of World War II.”[28]

Now consider three interesting details.

First, it was Frank Stanton who collected the audience-response statistics for Orson Welles’s 1938 broadcast. During interviews for a book about him conducted in the period 1994-97, Stanton, almost 90 and perhaps grown a bit careless in his old age, confessed that his 1938 research had shown no mass panic (see above).

Second, Socolow mentions that Stanton had collected the aforementioned data working in collaboration with Paul Lazarsfeld, his colleague at the Princeton Office of Radio Research.

Third, these two also worked together on Cantril’s manuscript for The Invasion from Mars. In internal testimony to the Rockefeller Foundation, “Stanton … and Lazarsfeld” expressed that they “essentially rewrote the manuscript and allowed it to be published under Cantril’s name.”[29]

It is Michael Socolow himself who unearthed this last bit, yet its special significance seems to have escaped him. So perhaps this calls for a precise statement: Frank Stanton and Paul Lazarsfeld, the guys who always knew there had been no mass panic, are the real authors of the book—‘Cantril’s book’—which claims to have documented a mass panic.

Delicious. (Or chilling.)

During the war, writes Christopher Simpson, Nelson and David Rockefeller took on important intelligence duties. And it was partly under Nelson’s direction that William Paley, plus Frank Stanton, Hadley Cantril, and other psychological warriors were employed to ply their trade for the wartime US government.[30]

After the war, even as the Rockefeller brothers continued to play an outsized role in US Intelligence, and particularly in psychological warfare,[31] Frank Stanton went off to run CBS for many years, while the other psychological warriors, as Simpson documents in great detail, settled comfortably in their professorial chairs to lead spanking new university departments that sprang up in the blink of an eye, as if out of nowhere, to establish the academic discipline of ‘communications,’ many thanks to generous CIA funding laundered partly through the Rockefeller Foundation.

Now ask yourself this: What is the best reality-management tool for a psychological warrior? I’ll make the following proposal: it is the clandestinely corrupted ‘free press.’ Because, if you can corrupt the press without losing the appearance of its freedom, this appearance will preserve the public’s trust in the news. With that trust, you can sell the public anything. Astute psychological warriors, therefore, assuming they have Rockefeller-sized resources and are irrevocably committed to success, will not stop until they have possessed ‘the free press.’

One is thus drawn to the following question: Was the 1938 mass-panic con a performance test of a fully corrupted system? Were they checking to see whether it was now operational—that is, whether the system was now so tightly controlled and expertly wielded that it could create dramatic and entirely fake historical events? If so, the test was a resounding success.

In future articles, I will investigate the larger context of this story.



[1] The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic: Orson Welless infamous 1938 radio program did not touch off nationwide hysteria. Why does the legend persist?; Slate; 28 October 2013; by Jefferson Pooley & Michael J. Socolow. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/history/2013/10/orson_welles_war_of_the_worlds_panic_myth_the_infamous_radio_broadcast_did.html

[2] The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic (op. cit.)

[3] The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic (op. cit.)

[4] The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic (op. cit.)

[5] Dunham, C. B., & Cronkite, W. (1997). Fighting for the First Amendment: Stanton of CBS Vs. Congress and the Nixon White House. Praeger. (p.33)

[6] The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic (op. cit.)

[7] The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic (op. cit.)

[8] Carlyle, T. (1859). On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History: Six Lectures: Reported with Emendations and Additions. United States: Wiley & Halsted. (p.147)

[9] Schwartz, A. B. (2015). Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Wellesss War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (p.9)

[10] Broadcast Hysteria (op.cit). pp.8-9.

[11] Broadcast Hysteria (op.cit). p.9.

[12] Broadcast Hysteria (op.cit). pp.4-7

[13] The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic (op. cit.)

[14] The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic (op. cit.)

[15] Socolow seems almost embarrassed that he put forth a conspiracy theory (though he cannot help it), because he goes out of his way to conclude that his work has demonstrated that the media is not that powerful! In other words, because the media didnt really scare people into thinking that the Martians had landed. Um, but they did convince everybody for over 70 years that a mass panic took place that never happened., as per your own research, Pr. Socolow.

[16] The Hyped Panic Over War of the Worlds’”; The Chronicle of Higher Education; 24 October 2008; By Michael J. Socolow.

[17] Heyer, Paul. The Medium and the Magician: Orson Welles, the Radio Years, 1934-1952. United States, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005. (p.98)

[19] The Medium and the Magician (op. cit.) p.98.

[20] The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic (op. cit.)

[22] Ibid.

[23] Tye, Larry. The Father of Spin. Picador. Kindle Edition. (p. 18)

[24] Cutlip, Scott M. The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History. Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994. (p.168)

[25] The Hyped Panic Over War of the Worlds’” (op. cit.)

[26] Simpson, Christopher. Science of Coercion: Communication Research & Psychological Warfare, 19451960 (Forbidden Bookshelf Book 13). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. (pp.13, 15-17)

[27] Science of Coercion (op. cit) p.23

[28] Simpson, Christopher. Science of Coercion: Communication Research & Psychological Warfare, 19451960 (Forbidden Bookshelf Book 13). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition. (p. 80)

[29] The Hyped Panic Over War of the Worlds (op. cit.)

[30] During the war, Nelson Rockefeller was made assistant secretary of state under Roosevelt and Truman. In addition, he led the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), an early U.S. intelligence agency... focusing on Latin America, to which trusted Rockefeller asset and CBS owner William S. Paleyhimself among the prominent staffers at the Armys Psychological Warfare Divisionlent the eager collaboration of his network.(a) Hadley Cantril was the senior public opinion specialist at the CIAA and at the Office of War Information (OWI), another US intelligence unit focused on propaganda. Quite naturally, OWI... extended contracts for communications research and consulting to Paul Lazarsfeld, Hadley Cantril, [and] Frank Stanton.(b) RCAs David Sarnoff, another trusted Rockefeller asset, was special consultant to General Eisenhower on communications, rising to Brigadier General.(c) At his RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, Sarnoff hosted future CIA Director Allen Dulles wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services) operational center, which worked closely with the British MI6, which also stationed its New York office at the Rockefeller Center RCA Building. Meanwhile, David [Rockefeller]... served in Army intelligence in North Africa.(d)

(a) Science of Coercion (op. cit) p.80

(b) Science of Coercion (op. cit) p.26

(c) https://archive.org/stream/radioageresearch194245newyrich#page/n381/mode/2up

(d) Reich, Cary (1996) The life of Nelson A. Rockefeller : worlds to conquer, 1908-1958. New York : Doubleday. (p.559)

[31] Reich, Cary (1996) The life of Nelson A. Rockefeller : worlds to conquer, 1908-1958. New York : Doubleday. (p.559)

Topic tags:
Orson Welles War of the Worlds 1938 media CIA Rockefeller Jefferson Pooley Michael Socolow Christopher Simpson Hadley Cantril Frank Stanton William Paley panic corruption