An entertaining assessment of a watershed moment in American life and its lasting effect on popular culture.

BROADCAST HYSTERIA

ORSON WELLES'S WAR OF THE WORLDS AND THE ART OF FAKE NEWS

A skeptical look at the panic that might have been.

Just as literature was created the day a boy cried wolf when there was no wolf, the birth of fake news in the United States may have been Oct. 30, 1938, when a rising young radio celebrity cried Martian when there was no Martian. His name, of course, was Orson Welles (1915-1985), and he unleashed a radio production that convinced a number of people that space invaders had arrived in tiny Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and were proceeding to burn a path of destruction along the East Coast that would shame Gen. Sherman. Listeners throughout the country fled their homes in terror—or did they? That’s the question raised in this book by Schwartz, who persuasively argues that Martian hysteria was largely a media invention. Drawing on both ratings and hundreds of archived original letters from listeners (both pro and con) addressed to the FCC and CBS, Schwartz easily dismantles the idea that Welles alarmed the nation, as most people were tuned to another station. Among actual listeners, many knew the program was fiction, either because they heard it announced as such at the beginning or because they saw through it—and loved it. Relatively few people lost their grips on reality, but the press saw them as the majority and never bothered to check if they actually were. “No journalist ever made a serious attempt to figure out how much of the country had even heard the broadcast,” writes the author, “much less how many in its audience were frightened.” Myth became hardened into fact by a popular academic study, which Schwartz reveals was largely shaped to fit an unexamined hypothesis. The author credibly shows that the problem wasn’t the fake broadcast but the fake interpretation—“a newspaper exaggeration born of haste and misunderstanding”—that chilled creative expression. Advertisers, fearful of offending audiences, wanted shows that pandered to the lowest common denominator. Welles’ first great triumph also effectively killed the golden age of radio.

An entertaining assessment of a watershed moment in American life and its lasting effect on popular culture.

Pub Date: May 5, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8090-3161-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

TOMBSTONE

THE EARP BROTHERS, DOC HOLLIDAY, AND THE VENDETTA RIDE FROM HELL

Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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