Image: Wikimedia Commons
We all know the story of Oct. 30, 1938, when actor Orson Welles struck fear into the nation with a dramatization, in the form of a newscast, of the H.G. Wells (no relation) classic The War of the Worlds. The story is typically posed as an unsuspecting audience hearing what they believed was a real newscast about New York City being attacked by aliens from Mars and erupting into mass hysteria.
The New York Times published an article saying that the broadcast disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communication systems and “in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than twenty families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid.”
This was not meant to be a prank. The faux newscast was a scheduled episode of The Mercury Theatre on Air, which typically told stories based on classic literature in new, modern ways. Welles himself even said that he reminded listeners that the broadcast wasn’t real.
While in modern times, it’s funny to think about the country panicking over a fake radio story told to them by a celebrity who had just emblazoned the cover of Time magazine, our bubble is about to be burst. According to the book, Getting it Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism by sociologist W. Joseph Campbell, this reaction to the program was the exception, not the norm.
“The notion that the War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in panic is a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the power radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic and alarm,” wrote Campbell.
In fact, Slate states that a mere two percent of American households were listening to the broadcast, and the vast majority knew that it wasn’t real. When the C.E. Hooper ratings service called 5,000 people for ratings research, these two percent said they were listening to “the Orson Welles program” at the time of broadcast, but none said they were listening to a news program. If there was any hysteria, it was probably due to word of mouth and not how convincing Welles’ storytelling was (sorry, Orson). So there may have been some panic, but it was hardly anything measurable and definitely not newsworthy.
Why was this panic so overhyped, then? Well, we can always chalk it up to an amusing story, but State believes it was an effort of the newspaper industry to discredit the radio as a news source.