Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News
A. Brad Schwartz
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On the evening of October 30, 1938, radio listeners across the United States heard a startling report of a meteor strike in the New Jersey countryside. With sirens blaring in the background, announcers in the field described mysterious creatures, terrifying war machines, and thick clouds of poison gas moving toward New York City. As the invading force approached Manhattan, some listeners sat transfixed, while others ran to alert neighbors or to call the police. Some even fled their homes. But the hair-raising broadcast was not a real news bulletin-it was Orson Welles's adaptation of the H. G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds.
In Broadcast Hysteria, A. Brad Schwartz boldly retells the story of Welles's famed radio play and its impact. Did it really spawn a "wave of mass hysteria," as The New York Times reported? Schwartz is the first to examine the hundreds of letters sent to Orson Welles himself in the days after the broadcast, and his findings challenge the conventional wisdom. Few listeners believed an actual attack was under way. But even so, Schwartz shows that Welles's broadcast became a major scandal, prompting a different kind of mass panic as Americans debated the bewitching power of the radio and the country's vulnerability in a time of crisis. When the debate was over, American broadcasting had changed for good, but not for the better.
As Schwartz tells this story, we observe how an atmosphere of natural disaster and impending war permitted broadcasters to create shared live national experiences for the first time. We follow Orson Welles's rise to fame and watch his manic energy and artistic genius at work in the play's hurried yet innovative production. And we trace the present-day popularity of "fake news" back to its source in Welles's show and its many imitators. Schwartz's original research, gifted storytelling, and thoughtful analysis make Broadcast Hysteria a groundbreaking new look at a crucial but little-understood episode in American history.
Some simply enjoyed the thrill: “For what is more worthwhile in this life than a well rounded fund of experiences? ” wrote one Ohioan. 176 But others found the experience thought-provoking and immensely valuable. As a Wisconsin woman put it on November 3, “Your broadcast took my safe little life in its King Kong hands, juggled it around carelessly for the space of fifteen or twenty minutes, and allowed it to settle gently—again with proper perspective and in normal proportion. ”177 Some of the drop-off in angry letters sent to Welles can be attributed to people’s writing to the government instead.
His reliance on the “magic bullet” theory—the idea that people respond instinctually, rather than rationally, to media messages—led him to the false assumption that people believed because of their own inherent traits. Insecure people, he suggested, were prone to falling for the broadcast, whereas “psychologically secure” people were not—no matter how and when they tuned in. 101 By reading his own expectations into the data, he exaggerated the size of the panic and missed its true causes. * * * As work progressed on the War of the Worlds study, the rift between Cantril and Lazarsfeld continued to grow.
What the frightened needed, more than anything else, was to vent, and many did so in writing. But, however intense this anger was, it did not last very long. In some letters, it failed to get to the bottom of the page. One New Jersey woman began her letter to Welles, “You horrible, terrible person,” and ended by writing, in words somewhat cramped to fit them on the page, “After thinking about it I must say it was marvelous and accept my congratulations. ”170 An Ohio man appended to his letter to CBS—a “letter to protest such broadcasts” after what he called “the worst scare of my life”—a postscript: “P.
How do the personal characteristics, traits, and capacities of those who believed the drama to be real differ from the characteristics, traits, [and] capacities of those who heard the broadcast under the same conditions but who did not believe its reality? ” Cantril asked. 68 The implication seems to be that some people were mentally predisposed to fall for War of the Worlds, and the study would find out why. Cantril sought to quantify what made individuals vulnerable to propaganda. He reasoned that people whose fears led them to believe in the Martians would easily fall prey to a dictator manipulating those fears for his own gain.
158 Many other frightened listeners shared her delight in this sudden reprieve. “Such a relief when they announced what it was,” wrote a Georgia woman to Welles. “Then we all laughed + laughed. It had given us a thrill we hadn’t had in ages. ”159 After the station break, the show dropped the news-broadcast fiction entirely, and Welles narrated the rest of the story as Professor Pierson. His character wandered through the desolated countryside, encountered a megalomaniacal survivor, and eventually discovered that the Martians had all died from bacteria—“slain, after all man’s defenses had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom’s put upon this earth.