In addition, the broadcast would only have been "live" on the east coast and part of the mid west. The rest of the country would have heard a recorded transcription an hour or so later, at which time the announcement that it was only a radio show was being made very clear.Myth: "Orson Welles panicked the entire nation with his 1938 'War of the Worlds' Broadcast."
The best source of information on the post-broadcast reaction remains Professor Hadley Cantril's landmark study "The Invasion From Mars," published in 1940, and reissued in 1966. Cantril's estimates of the program's audience and of the numbers of listeners who reacted to the broadcast are the most accurate available, and form the basis for most of what's been written about the program over the decades. It's a book that's constantly quoted -- but rarely seems to have actually been read by those who are doing the quoting.
So what, exactly, does Cantril say?
Professor Cantril estimates, first of all, that no more than six million listeners heard the broadcast. This figure is derived from a scientific poll taken by the American Institute of Public Opinion six weeks after the broadcast, as well as from the C. E. Hooper Inc. Hooperrating survey actually taken on the night of October 30th - Cantril's figure splits the difference between the two surveys to come up with the 6 million figure. Of these, Cantril estimates, based again on the AIPO survey, that about 1.7 million accepted the program as a news bulletin and 1.2 million were sufficiently distressed to do something about it. In other words, nearly a third of those who heard the program believed it -- and nearly a quarter of those who heard it were, in Cantril's words, excited by it.
Impressive -- and, the source of the "Night That Panicked America" legend. But was "America" truly panicked?
Consider this. The population of the United States according the the 1940 census (the closet available figure to 1938) was approximately 150.6 million. If 1.2 million people were "excited" by WOTW, that amounts to less than one per cent of the total population -- and by no stretch of the imagination can that be considered a nationwide panic. Cantril's estimate includes everyone who "reacted" to the broadcast, whether they picked up the phone to call a neighbor or ran screaming into the street -- so the number of people who took the latter extreme would be substantially less than one percent of the total population.
So -- why has the legend persisted? Why do we have these images of frightened families surging into the streets, fleeing some unspeakable fate?
Press coverage has a lot to do with it - and again, timing is everything. The newspapers were still smarting from the beating they'd taken from radio during the European Crisis -- and WOTW gave the print media a chance to wag the Finger Of Alarm at the irresponsibility of this Upstart Medium. The story was played up big in the New York papers -- where the tabloid Daily News and Daily Mirror, especially, gave the story gigantic headlines and pages of inside coverage. Even the staid New York Times gave the story banner placement. The excesses of the New York press can be excused, perhaps, by the fact that a lot of the "panic" was centered in New Jersey, where the alleged invasion took place -- but looking back on the newspaper coverage today, one has to wonder just how carefully researched it actually was.
In any case, the legends took root -- and have entered into our national folklore. All the statistics one could ever want to quote will never dispel the myth that all the nation fled in panic on that Halloween Eve 1938. It's a good story, and it's an unfortunate truth that that a good story beats out straight history every time.
Of course to the news men of the day, the east coast WAS the whole country. (they probably STILL think that)