The Martians Have Landed!, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford

The Martians Have Landed

The Martians Have Landed! is a collection of essays—most but not all by the co-authors—about various news stories, or things mistaken for news stories, that turned out to be false, exaggerated, or misleading in some significant way.

Actually it’s kind of hard to describe just what kinds of things fall under the umbrella of what the book is about, because they are quite varied. The subtitle refers to them as Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, but I don’t know that that fully captures all the phenomena in question.

Included are at least the following types of cases:

• Works of fiction (e.g., television or radio plays or movies) purposely made realistic to fool people, which a significant percentage of the audience took to be actual news stories.

• Works of fiction (e.g., television or radio plays or movies) that were somewhat realistic but were not intended to fool people, yet that a significant percentage of the audience took to be actual news stories anyway.

• Hoaxes, like a fake news story, created by media members themselves.

• Hoaxes, like a fake news story, created by people not in the media, which the media were tricked into conveying to the public.

• News stories that the media overrated the importance of, giving them more attention than other stories of equal or greater importance.

• Urban legends that made their way into the media, where few if any of the sources or the media members themselves were intentionally being deceptive.

Looked at another way, the book contains cases where someone in the media made stuff up, cases where someone else made stuff up and the media were an unwitting conduit for it, and cases where the false content wasn’t made up but came about by way of honest mistakes.

The book itself, by the way, divides up the cases yet a different way, in terms of the type of media involved, e.g., problematic stories spread primarily via radio, via television, via newspapers, via the Internet, etc.

I found The Martians Have Landed! both frustratingly broad in a way and frustratingly narrow in a way in its subject matter.

It feels too broad in the sense that the categories it covers can be so dissimilar that it’s like you’re jumping around from cabbages to kings to everything in between. I don’t know that a disc jockey faking his own kidnapping and the urban legend about trick-or-treaters being injured and killed by poisoned candy and razor blades in apples and such really have enough in common to sensibly be addressed together as the same kind of phenomenon.

On the other hand, to me there is a great deal that could be talked about in a book about media falsehoods that is left out of here entirely.

I feel like the selection process for the book was weighted far too much toward what would be safe and uncontroversial. When I think about the bullshit the media spread—again, both what the media themselves are lying about and what they unwittingly spread from their lying sources—it certainly isn’t things like Orson Welles’s radio play of The War of the Worlds or the way shark attacks are reported with a frequency and intensity that creates a false impression of just how prevalent such attacks are that strike me as the most important and most harmful examples.

I think the most devastating media lies and hoaxes involve the most powerful segments of society propagandizing from material and ideological motives, from climate change deniers pretending to be something other than the paid spokespersons for the fossil fuel industry that they are, to the George W. Bush administration shamelessly lying the country into war.

But The Martians Have Landed! largely avoids political issues like that, in favor of answering the burning question of whether what you might have read online somewhere about chupacabras terrorizing livestock is accurate.

About the most controversial issue it addresses is the vaccine panic. The very fact that it’s willing to go there only calls attention to where it’s not willing to go. The book is willing to imply that the alternative and fringe medicine folks/New Agers/anti-science people/etc. who denounce vaccines are stupid or dishonest, but it’s not willing to tell you that conservative pundits who state or imply that Democratic presidents are bigger spenders and run bigger deficits than Republican presidents are stupid or dishonest.

Apparently the former are far enough from the mainstream that you can just come right out and say they’re wrong, but the latter are presumed to be taking a reasonable position that you’d have to be a biased liberal to denounce. In fact, the falsehoods of the latter are if anything more blatant and more demonstrable, and in the long run certainly vastly more damaging, than those of the former.

Besides being unsatisfied with some aspects of the selection of material, I also found the book too superficial in a sense. I would have preferred a much greater emphasis on themes, on what these cases can teach us. What is it about the media that make them apt to drive such panics and hoaxes, and what would need to change to make them less apt to do so? Is it a matter of the incentives they come under in a capitalist system where the news is a product to be sold and where advertisers heavily influence what is reported and how? Does the weirdly prevalent notion that objectivity consists of presenting the two most popular positions on an issue as if they were of equal merit make the problem better or worse? Are the media over-regulated? Under-regulated? Are there certain media ethical standards and practices that should be changed? Is it realistic that they could be changed? Are journalists, or especially the people at the top of the media calling the shots, not educated enough? Not educated correctly? Not diverse enough? Would a populace better educated in critical thinking call forth a superior journalism? In what ways do people need to be better critical thinkers? How can such an improvement in critical thinking be brought about? Etc.

A better book, in my opinion, would have delved deeply into issues like these, and would have used the cases of “panics and hoaxes” to support hypotheses concerning these matters. Instead the cases are mostly just presented one after another. This disc jockey made up this story and got caught, this rumor spread via the Internet, a lot of people thought this movie was nonfiction, this speculative science story was presented as if it had been confirmed, etc.

The Martians Have Landed! tells us about various cases of false and misleading things spread via the media, but there should be a lot more about why it matters that these things happen, what it tells us about the political/economic/technological/etc. systems that dominate our lives, and what we can do about it.

When you get right down to it, we need to know who is systematically using the media to lie to us and why, but I think this book shies away from getting into that.

One thing I took from the book is how if you present something fictional that is at all realistic, regardless of how many disclaimers you run and how you bend over backwards not to fool people there will always be people who are convinced what you’re presenting is nonfiction. Some of it is just that vast numbers of people are stupid, but it can also be a product of various mental illnesses, people seeing only part of something because they’re channel surfing, people not seeing any of it but just hearing about it from others, etc. But you can bet that if a televised movie features actors portraying journalists breaking some alarming news story, with disclaimers or not, the network and local police stations will get plenty of calls from panicky people wanting to know more about the Russian or space alien invasion.

That famous Orson Welles case, after all, included disclaimers alerting everyone to the fact that it was a fictional radio play, that there were not in fact Martians attacking the Earth. There’s still considerable controversy over to what extent it was even an intentional hoax. Other cases discussed in the book are even more clear cut examples of a lack of intent to fool anyone, yet where many members of the audience believed the events being depicted were really occurring in spite of seemingly every reasonable precaution being taken to prevent that happening.

But here again there’s the potential to go somewhere deeper with this point. Given how depressingly common it is to fool people even when you’re going out of your way precisely not to fool them, think about what that says about how easy it is to fool people when you’re trying to.

Consider, for instance, newspaper and magazine advertising supplements that are intentionally printed to look as much as possible like legitimate stories in the publication. Should we treat them as harmless just because invariably they include disclaimers, for example, maybe the word “Advertisement” in small-to-medium type at the top of each page? Absolutely not, since we now know how extremely limited is the effectiveness of disclaimers.

The same could be said of infomercials presented as if they are some sort of news or interview program, often even with recognizable media figures like Larry King. Or how about the fact that a high percentage of “news” stories, especially in local media, are little more than press releases by corporations? There the line between news and advertising has become even more permeable, and so even more people are fooled.

I would say, for that matter, that the majority of pundits and even so-called journalists themselves function, as I mentioned above, as spokespersons for those who have sufficient resources to buy them (and insufficient ethics to refrain from doing so). Good luck getting a proper disclaimer (“The views expressed by General Smith are not those of an objective, sincere person with an informed opinion on these matters, but are a product of his relationship with the United States military and especially the multinational corporations that benefit the most from money spent on war and the preparations for war”), but evidently even if there were such a disclaimer it wouldn’t be all that effective anyway.

We’re being lied to and manipulated constantly through the media, and in ways far more systematic and evil than the kinds of cases emphasized in this book, like that of some insufficiently trained science reporter overstating the quality of a study linking cell phone use to higher cancer rates, or that of some overly credulous stories about fires seemingly happening disproportionately often in homes that happen to have a certain mass-produced painting of a crying child on their walls.

I actually found much of The Martians Have Landed! interesting and worthwhile, even though my reaction to it seems so thoroughly critical. But what the heck, let’s pile on a little more.

I frankly found it to be poorly written and/or edited compared to most books I’ve read. There are typos here and there, numerous instances of infelicitous wording, and the kind of jarring passages that can occur when you cobble together preexisting short pieces without carefully editing the result. An example of the latter would be where a person or thing is introduced or explained on one page, and then identified just as thoroughly a few pages later as if it were its first appearance in the book.

To be fair, when you get right down to it, The Martians Have Landed! is a decent book for what it is. I think readers will find a lot of the cases it discusses interesting and entertaining. But I guess as I read it I was a lot more conscious of what it could have done but failed to do than of what it actually accomplishes.

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