"War of the Worlds" at the Fitz: Fear Factor

It was purely coincidental. I got an e-mail as I was surfing through cable coverage of the California wildfires and caught … Fox News … asking the rhetorical and self-serving question: Might “terrorism” be behind the multiple infernos?

They had no evidence of course. No more reason to shout “terrorism!?” than I do for that flat tire I had the other morning. But when you’re in the fear business like Fox News is, when promoting fear is a fundamental factor of your business plan, you never want to miss a chance to goose your coverage just a wee bit, on the off chance that tinder dry conditions, 70 mph winds and the presence of 19 million people living in a desert environment — i.e. “reality” — isn’t scary enough.

Keith Olbermann took his shot at Fox News’ cynicism here.

Anyway, as I’m watching this I get an e-mail from the publicist for WNYC’s “Radio Lab Live!” promoting tomorrow’s show sat the Fitzgerald in St. Paul, titled, “Decoding the ‘War of the Worlds’.” Prior to reading the attached copy all I knew was that NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich, who I always enjoy, was going to be doing something with the classic Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater Martian invasion broadcast that spooked a chunk of the population back in 1938.

As I read through the copy I came across this line, “[Producer Jad] Abumrad and Krulwich will hear from eyewitnesses, scientists, and master storytellers to investigate the nature of belief and skepticism, uncovering the neurological differences between those who believed and those who did not.

Bingo. If you’re in the business of following the media, you’re also in the business of trying to understand why X% of the population appears to have such stunted abilities for critical thinking and why they are so damned susceptible to fakery and bullshit.

I arranged an interview with producer Abumrad and caught him just before his lunch was about to arrive Thursday afternoon.

He said that that “neurological” separation business was what intrigued him most about this particular episode. (Abumrad and Krulwich began by producing five “Radio Lab” episodes a year, now distributed through 170 public radio affiliates, but “we’re now ramping up to do ten.”)

Abumrad said a Princeton scientist, (“War of the Worlds” was set in New Jersey), did a survey immediately after the hysteria died down, looking to see what characteristics defined those who believed and those who properly sorted through the available clues and accepted it as fiction. The survey asked questions testing respondents’ levels of insecurity, phobias, their church-going tendencies and levels of personal confidence.

What the scientist did and didn’t find out is part of Krulwich and Abumrad’s production, so I won’t ruin anyone’s enjoyment. (Tickets are still available. 8 p.m. Saturday. Only $15. mpr.org/events.)

I had never heard that re-stagings of Welles’ broadcast — years later — had inspired similar hysteria. Abumrad says a 1949 Spanish language re-staging – in Ecuador — ended with 15 people dead. (Most after a mob, angry at being duped by the hoax, attacked and torched a radio station.)

“There are so many factors to examine in why some people accept or default to what is called ‘magical thinking’,” said Abumrad. “There was an interesting study out of Israel which looked at the effect the stress of the Scud missile attacks during the first Gulf War had on some people. Frankly, after you look at these studies the question you start asking yourself is, ‘Why didn’t everyone believe?'”

The only semi-concrete percentage of the morbidly credulous, as I like to think of them, is the Princeton study’s estimate that 12 million people heard the Welles’ broadcast live and somewhere around a million “ran out of town screaming”, as Abumrad puts it, with a little comic hyperbole. That’s not great science, but a little over 8% is roughly the combined audience share for cable news these days.

I didn’t push Abumrad on my Fox News obsession, but he freely offered that TV news in general operates on a fear format to hold and build audiences, and a shrewd impresario like Orson Welles, (already writing the script for “Citizen Kane”), certainly understood that “fear works”.

Abumrad and Krulwich’s “Radio Lab” 90-minute show will take audiences through the psychology, historical context and showmanship of the Welles broadcast. There will be a Q & A. And a podcast will be up, “in December or January”.

In another related bit of coincidence, the news this morning includes this sadly surprise-free survey of Americans’ belief in haunted houses, ghosts and assorted bogeymen. (Note that more liberals than conservatives claim to have seen a ghost. Maybe the Ghost of Critical Thinking.)