A mock newscast reporting that Russia was invading the former Soviet republic of Georgia stirred frightened reactions that have been likened to the panic and hysteria supposedly caused by Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938.
The televised spoof in Georgia “was evidently intended as political satire, but the depiction was sufficiently realistic—and memories of the brief war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 still sufficiently vivid—that viewers headed for the doors before they could absorb the point,” the New York Times said over the weekend.
The anchorman on privately owned Imedi television was shown fumbling papers during the videotaped fake newscast Saturday night, “as if juggling the chaos of a breaking news story,” the Times reported.
The anchor said fighting had broken out on the streets of Tbilisi, the capital, and that “Russian bombers were airborne and heading for Georgia, that troops were skirmishing to the west and that a tank battalion was reported to be on the move,” according to the Times.
The program was identified as fictitious before the broadcast, the Times said, adding that “viewers who tuned in later would have had to rely on [visual] clues. The fighting in the video was taking place in the summer, for example, not in March.”
The report stirred frenzied reactions, not unlike the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, in which listeners who tuned in late were prone to believing the dramatization was a real-time Martian invasion.
As it became clear the televised spoof had disturbed and frightened its viewers, Imedi placed a disclaimer on the screen, alerting viewers that the program was a simulation.
The panic lasted about 15 minutes, the Times reported.
Afterward, a knot of demonstrators gathered outside the television station to protest the fake newscast.
A Georgia news outlet in a report posted online today quoted Imedi’s general director, a former political associate of the country’s president, as saying the spoof was intended to underscore the external threats that Georgia face.
Russian forces invaded Georgia in August 2008 and seemed for a time poised to topple the elected government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The long-ago War of the Worlds program, which aired over CBS radio on Halloween eve, supposedly was so realistic in its accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat rays that newspapers said Americans by the tens of thousands—even the hundreds of thousands—were convulsed in panic.
But as I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension.
“While many Americans were frightened by the program, most listeners, overwhelmingly, were not.”
But the reaction in Georgia may not have been overstated, given the undeniable threat posed by Russia.
Even so, the TV satire appears to have been as misguided as it was crude and unprofessional. An inexcusably thoughtless use of the airwaves.