No single program in American broadcasting has inspired more fear, controversy, and endless fascination than the radio dramatization of the War of The Worlds that aired on Halloween eve in 1938.
The program, which told of invading Martians wielding deadly heat rays, was the work of Orson Welles, a 23-year-old prodigy who directed and starred in the show.
As I write in my new mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Welles’ show supposedly was so alarming and made such effective use of simulated news bulletins that listeners by the tens of thousands—or even the hundreds of thousands—were convulsed in fear, panic, and mass hysteria, believing the Earth was under alien attack.
Fright beyond measure seized America that night more than 70 years ago.
Or so the media-driven myth has it.
Getting It Wrong offers compelling evidence that the fear, panic, and mass hysteria so readily associated with the War of The Worlds radio dramatization did not occur that night on anything approaching nationwide dimension.
I write that while some Americans may have been frightened by the program, the overwhelming number of listeners were not: They recognized it for what it was—an imaginative and entertaining radio show.
However, newspapers the day after Welles’ show suggested that mass panic had indeed swept the country.
Their reports were almost entirely anecdotal and based mostly on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over depth. Newspapers, I write, “simply had no reliable way of ascertaining the validity of the sweeping claims” they made about the radio program.
“Inaccurate reporting,” I write, “gave rise to a misleading historical narrative and produced a savory and resilient media-driven myth.”
I further note in Getting It Wrong that the War of the Worlds show also offered American newspapers an “irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio—which in 1938 was an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising.”
Newspapers took delight in assailing radio as an unreliable, untrustworthy source of information. And this overwhelmingly negative commentary, I write, helped solidify the notion that the radio broadcast had sown mass panic and hysteria among Americans.
In short, the idea that the War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in fear and panic, is a media-driven myth—one that offers a deceptive message about the influence of radio and about the media’s potential to cause panic and alarm.
I also note in Getting It Wrong that there can be “no disputing that the War of the Worlds dramatization was great entertainment”–worthy of distinction as perhaps the most famous radio show ever.
Recent and related:
- Mythical ‘War of Worlds’ radio show adapted to stage
- Media myths, the junk food of journalism
- On media myths and the ‘golden age’ fallacy
- Indulging in myth on the debate’s 50th anniversary
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on ‘PJM Political’
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on Q-and-A
Many thanks to Kathy Shaidle of fivefeetoffury for linking to this post.