Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

by A. Brad Schwartz, 2015

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” – Poe

This quote is the frontispiece to this book. Hits me right in my skeptical soul. I run Doubtful News, a site that deals daily with questionable claims in news media. I don’t like fake news. But the story of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’s historic radio drama that was said to cause a National panic, was NOT fake news, nor was it a panic.

It was perceived as fake news; it was always intended to be a drama, nothing more. What surprisingly spiraled from it is at the core of this book. The story of the National panic over a Martian invasion was what turned out to be fake. The US ended up with a giant storm about censorship and media trust in a time of uncertainty and change.

In 1932, radio offered a mass of people means to follow events instantly and have shared national experiences in real time. It fostered a sense of community in the scary time of Depression, between wars. People had a difficult time adjusting to this new medium. Major broadcast networks did not use recorded content. News events were reenacted with sound-alike actors so the audience would not feel “hoaxed” or confused. Ironic, isn’t it? The infamous crash of the Hindenburg narrative was recorded by a reporter. It was too important NOT to air but, even with clarification, the author says, some people still thought it was live.

To chronicle what happened in the aftermath of the War of the Worlds broadcast, Schwartz mined the letters from listeners that were sent to the radio network and the Federal Communications Commission. CBS was a trusted new source. It hosted Welles’ Mercury Theater on Air. Radio in the US was not run by the government but supported via advertisements and sponsorship right from the beginning. However, broadcasters were expected to serve the public interest. Americans looked to radio as their source of breaking news in the time of the Nazi threat. Thus, while they would have found it hard to accept that Martians were  landing in NJ, it was just as hard to accept that CBS would violate public trust and fake a story.

Broadcast Hysteria reveals much about Welles’ himself and the how the infamous broadcast developed and played out. The writer, Howard Koch, was the one who adopted the HG Wells novel into a fake news angle as Welles wanted. Changes to the script, to make it sound more authentic, were made up to the last minute. Revisions removed several clues that would have clearly identified it as fake such as references to passage of time. Using real place names, names and voices of people that sounded authoritative, the tempo and construction of the broadcast, and the emotion-filled acting made the show the ultimate radio drama – people bought into it entirely, even if they KNEW it was fake. Yet, there was little reason to expect the serious problem that arose during and after the event.

The book mentions the “Broadcasting the Barricades”, an episode prior to Welles show, that was an obvious parody of a news broadcast in London. Some people were alarmed at the vivid description of London under attack, but it did not create a true panic. However, the NY Times declared a similar incident COULDN’T happen in the U.S. We were too smart to be taken in by such a thing…

Not many people listened to the Halloween broadcast. Many had the station on but weren’t paying close attention or tuned in late. The book notes that the idea that people turned the channels to catch other programs, called “dialitis”, didn’t stand out as a cause of the later confusion about the episode. There was no mass exodus of listeners from the popular Chase and Sanborn show at the same time.

Schwartz makes several salient points in this book that those of us who follow weird stories find very interesting.

1. There was no real panic. There was outrage based on the media reporting of panic. The headlines said there was a panic, there were iconic pictures that fed the idea, but there were very few people that gave over to the fear and tried to evacuate. Most people tried to check the authenticity of the claims by talking to others. They DIDN’T necessarily think aliens were invading but that it was some earthly attack. The media took a complex sociological event and oversimplified it to the point where it was not true.

2. Information about the show was not spread via listening to the show but by those listeners who felt the need to spread news. Fear spread faster because of what people were told about the show than by listening to the show itself.

3. Nothing in the broadcast was illegal though many people thought there had been. It sparked a call for taking the show off the air and for censorship of various degrees. There were the typical calls that radio was corrupting the youth. The industry, scared for its future, policed themselves. Radio became boring pablum for many as creativity was squelched.

4. Support for Welles outnumbered complaints 10:1. The blame did not fall on him as much as it fell on an audience who seemingly overreacted. A Chicago Tribune editorial noted that “the radio audience isn’t very bright” with some members “a trifle retarded mentally” (p 141). There rose a general concern about the national intelligence and if the US was prone to propaganda. However, it was not so far-fetched, when one examines it, to see how people could have so easily been mislead by the broadcast, no matter what their IQ.

In the end, the real story was about the state of radio, skepticism about what we hear, and a constructed moral panic.

Welles later changed his story saying the broadcast was a deliberate attempt to teach skepticism. This version is not supported by others’ narratives. A repeat of the War of the Worlds show was repeated in Chile 1944 and Quito, Ecuador in 1949, when people died in the attack on the station after hearing it was a hoax. People seemed to not learn from history.

And today, we see the same behavior repeated with viral news stories that people eat up and pass along uncritically. Our technology amplifies our ability to spread the word without pausing to think about it. The author notes “The only way democracy can survive in the age of mass media is for the public to be informed and skeptical.” Hear hear!

I recommend this book for those interested in hoaxes, the history of the media and of news, moral panics, and critical thinking. It sheds important illumination on these fields.

1 thought on “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see – Book review

  1. Quite a good book although it made me sad that the classics about the event are so wrong. Still, it was a different time and Mae West had already been banned from radio for a sketch about Adam & Eve that she did on the Charlie McCarthy Show – just because puritanical listeners thought her voice was too sexy so the network had to be careful in it’s response.

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