WSW: War Of The Worlds And The Myth Of Panic

Oct 20, 2016

Orson Welles, center, explains to reporters on Oct. 31, 1938 his radio dramatization of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds." Meanwhile, Columbia Broadcasting System made public the transcript of the dramatization, which was aired the night of Oct. 30 and caused thousands of listeners to panic because of the realistic broadcast of an imaginative invasion of men and machines from Mars. (AP Photo)
Credit Associated Press / AP

According to legend, actor and director Orson Welles scared more than just the pants off an anxious nation with his famous 1938  War of the Worlds radio broadcast. But a Michigan historian and author says the myth that the show led to The Night That Panicked America, as a later TV movie called it, is just that: a myth. 

A. Brad Schwartz of East Lansing is the author of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News (Hill and Wang, 2015). He also co-wrote an episode of the public television program "American Experience" about the broadcast. Schwartz will talk about its continuing legacy, and its implications for our current news environment, in South Haven on Thursday, October 20.

Schwarz says some people did indeed panic while listening to Welles's radio version of the H.G. Wells novel. But he says their numbers were vastly inflated by credulous and sensational newspaper reports. Most people listening to the radio that night in 1938 weren't even tuned to the program. Welles's production was part of the low-rated Mercury Theatre on the Air on CBS. It was crushed in the ratings by NBC Radio's Chase and Sanborn Radio Hour, starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy. Schwartz says most of those who did tune into The War of the Worlds did not flee their homes in blind panic but tried to verify the truth of what they were hearing from other sources. Many called newspapers, radio stations, or the police. Schwartz says many listeners mentally substituted "Nazis" for "Martians" to create a more plausible story.

"Fake" news didn't begin with War of the Worlds radio broadcast. And Schwartz says it continued long after. In fact, he says it's still in full force today. But now it is the Internet and online sources of information that are the focus of concern. In 1938, Schwartz says radio was the new medium on the block, looking for ways to build its audience. That included outright "fake news" like Welles's fictitious program, and shows like "The March of Time" that re-enacted real news events using actors and sound effects in the studio. Newspapers, the older medium, felt threatened by radio but responded by buying their own stations. Today, Schwartz says some news organizations still tend to emphasize the startling and sensational at the expense of truth to gather clicks and sell ads. In that sense, he says, 2016 isn't all that different than 1938.

Schwartz will talk about the War of the Worlds broadcast and its continuing echoes today as part of the South Haven Speakers Series. His presentation at Lake Michigan College in South Haven starts at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 20. Admission costs $10.