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Did ‘War of the Worlds’ Truly Frighten the Country?

Detail from the cover of Getting It Wrong.

W. Joseph Campbell's 2010 book, "Getting It Wrong"

Halloween 1938 might have been the scariest ever.

When CBS broadcast Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds 72 years ago, it sounded so real that tens of thousands of Americans convulsed in fear—or so newspapers reported the following day.

But the widespread panic is nothing more than a myth, according to School of Communication professor Joseph Campbell. It’s one of 10 myths by or about the news media he dispels in his book, Getting It Wrong.

“Surveys showed that listeners, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the program for what it was—an imaginative and entertaining show,” Campbell said. “In addition, while newspaper reports indicated mass panic and hysteria, none of those same reports indicated deaths or serious injuries were associated with the program. Had the program caused mass panic and hysteria, many deaths and serious injuries surely would have ensued.”

Here are a few other major stories you think you knew, and why you’re wrong.

Cronkite-Johnson
MYTH — Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment in February 1968 that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam caused public opinion to swing against the war. At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson watched the Cronkite program and declared, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

DEBUNKED — Public opinion began turning against the Vietnam War months before Cronkite’s program. Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment was unremarkable — other news outlets had previously offered similar or harsher analyses. Johnson did not even see the Cronkite program when it aired. He was at the time attending a birthday party in Austin, Texas.

Crack babies
MYTH — Children born to women who smoked crack cocaine during their pregnancies were, according to numerous news reports, doomed to lives of endless dependency and suffering.

DEBUNKED — The much-feared social disaster never materialized. News accounts of helpless “crack babies” were based more on anecdotes than solid, sustained research. There is, moreover, no medically recognized “crack baby” syndrome.

Hurricane Katrina
MYTH — News coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in 2005 was superlative and represented a memorable occasion of the media’s exposing government incompetence.

DEBUNKED — Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism. The news coverage in important ways was flawed and wildly exaggerated. Numerous accounts that described apocalyptic horror unleashed by the hurricane proved false. On crucial details, journalists got it wrong, defaming a battered city and impugning its residents at a time of deep despair.

Campbell will be discussing his book at this year's National Press Club Book Fair and Authors' Night on November 9.