Orson Welles‘ ’War of the Worlds’ Broadcast: Its Ominous Echoes for a Fractured Media

Orson Welles‘ ’War of the Worlds’ Broadcast: Its Ominous Echoes for a Fractured Media

Every year there are new essays about unveiling the truth behind Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast that aired on CBS radio on October 30th, 1938. We know the truth – the stories about mass hysteria were overblown. For anyone looking for a straightforward history of what happened, look no farther than A. Brad Schwartz. The reason corrective stories keep coming up is that some people prefer to believe that the radio play sparked a nationwide mass panic. It sure makes for a great story. But while there were many confused listeners, some scared by the play’s deceptive production methods, there was not mass panic coast to coast. Finding the truth takes work, not unlike any fact-finding mission today, because we need to sift through a lot of salacious attention seeking information to find the facts. Then, as now, media literacy is a key facet towards intelligent public engagement.

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The FCC investigated War of the Worlds immediately, promising to put a stop to any kind of “simulated news items.” The FCC closed its investigation in December 1938 when it found that while some people took the program to be real for various reasons, CBS agreed to take steps to avoid making a fiction broadcast sound like it was actual breaking news. What we should focus on today, as many did then, was the importance of media literacy. In 1938, radio was still relatively new, having recently become a primary means for information gathering and entertainment.

Prior to production, Welles showed interest in creating a broadcast that would appear real. The result was a group effort made up of producer John Housemen, writer Howard Koch, as well as several suggestions made from Mercury Theater cast members. Most importantly, Frank Readick who played the reporter on the ground as aliens emerged from their ships, decided to mimic his panicked reporting of the audio from the Hindenburg disaster. Welles suggested to slow the pace of the show’s opening minutes to highlight the monotony, which sped up during the alien invasion.

The simulated broadcast interruptions mimicked real breaking news. For anyone who tuned in after the Mercury Theater introduction, the second station break occurred about 40 minutes in, allowing ample time for confusion (not necessarily panic in the streets).

Audiences in the 1930s trusted radio and had not yet experienced arguable misuse of the airwaves. President Roosevelt used radio for his “fireside chats.” During and after the Great Depression the United States was a fractured nation that turned to the radio for a sense of community and hope for the future. In addition, growing concerns over the war in Europe left many fearful of Earth-bound enemy invasion on our own soil. Therefore, it’s possible those who tuned in late and heard “invasion” did not necessarily believe there were aliens but rather an invasion from the Axis. One New York Rabbi argued that any fear from War of the Worlds was likened to a growing fear of a German invasion; “People in the whole of the United States were running away in panic fear from Adolph Hitler.”

Orson Welles (seated center) meets the press on the day after his famous WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast, 1938.

Orson Welles (seated center) meets the press on the day after his ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast in 1938.

Courtesy Everett Collection

The day following the War of the Worlds broadcast, Welles spoke to the media and apologized, acting as if he did not know the broadcast would have any impact. Of course, we know that the producers did want to simulate real breaking news. H.G. Wells, author of the 1898 source novel, told the New York Times that CBS “far overstepped their rights” by producing “an entirely different story.” Although Orson Welles answered such criticism in his press conference, telling reporters that he simply placed the story in the US because that’s where the listeners were. This was no different than H.G. Wells centering the novel in Europe where he was writing.

National press quickly jumped at the opportunity to stir the pot. Articles claiming that the radio play led the country into mass hysteria became commonplace. Most famously, the front page of the New York Times read “Radio Listeners in Panic: Taking War Drama as Fact,” claiming that people fled their homes with wet rags on their faces to thwart the alien gas weaponry. While there were reports of panic near where the radio play took place, such as a man who walked into a theater in Orange, NJ with the intention of alerting moviegoers to the danger heard over the airwaves, the massive influx of communication was a range of inquisitive minds and angry listeners were upset that the broadcast was made to sound real. A primary cause for confusion, particularly for those who tuned in late, was how the play took place in real locations like Trenton and Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Realistic titles were also used for city and state officials (such as the “secretary of the interior” issuing evacuations).

By November 6th, less than a week after the broadcast, a New York Times column by Orrin E. Dunlap Jr. noted that radio producers “now know it is dangerous to electrify fiction in such a way that the listeners believe it is news or a regular radio program.” The New York Times took 875 calls that night with the Newark Evening News receiving 1,000. The Newark police headquarters reported nearly a thousand calls. Some asking if the police had extra gas masks or if they needed to close their windows. It has been estimated that the New Jersey Bell company received 75,000-100,000 calls over their normal traffic during the 8:00 hour. Paul Morton, the City Manager for Trenton, NJ, wrote a curt letter to the FCC following the CBS broadcast. The broadcast had “completely crippled communication facilities of our police department for about three hours,” wrote Morton, “I am requesting that you immediately make and investigation and do everything possible to prevent a recurrence.” His primary concern was that if there would have been a real emergency the clogged telephone wires would have caused a bigger problem.

Legendary journalist Dorothy Thompson published her response to War of the Worlds on November 2nd, 1938, titled “Mr. Welles and Mass Delusion” in the New York Herald Tribune. Though she overstated the panic like many other journalists did at the time, Thompson argued that the real issue raised by this broadcast was the failure of education. She understood that many people were being swayed by truly dangerous radio personalities like the popular antisemite Father Charles Coughlin. The overplaying of the War of the Worlds hysteria was justified, in Thompson’s eyes, because it highlighted a dangerous gullibility present in some of our populace.  While some members of the press and political worlds blamed Welles for the result of the play, Thompson argued that Welles “ought to be given a Congressional medal, and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important contributions to the social sciences.” Her argument was that Hitler could scare nations with an entire army, while “Welles scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all.” Anyone who called into the papers or authorities could have simply turned the dial and learned that there was no invasion. Even a small number of people duped by such a program was not acceptable, and for Thompson evidence of a terrifying lack of intelligence in our country.

Letters sent to national newspapers around the country reacted to the initial reports of fear. Like Thompson, letters sent to the Washington Post complained about the lack of radio literacy. Dorothy White argued that anyone unsure of what was happening should have simply opened their radio guide. Isabel Vickers observed that any panic or concern shows “how inattentively the public listens to the radio.” One amusing letter claimed the cause of hysteria was a result of “all-night life, the senseless barbaric swing music, questionable songs, drinking parties, wild, drunken driving, and other poise-wrecking activities.” More intelligently, A. Griggs wrote that any reporting of how our country was duped by a radio play only created “abroad a contempt for American excitability.”

The fact that anyone, even a small number, took the CBS production as fact, was a call for education for Dr. Alice V. Keliher, who chaired the Commission on Human Relations of the Progressive Education Association. “Dictators corral and use the insecurities of the masses” said Keliher, “realistic education in human relations can at least remove the fears that arise from ignorance.” Such calls for education mirror current calls for media literacy. In the months following the broadcast, Radio Mirror continued the narrative that Welles was “able to plunge a whole nation into terror,” focusing on how the broadcast worked as a call to arms for increased national defense. As A. Brad Schwartz argued in Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, many journalists and scholars saw what they wanted from the Mercury Theater production. Whatever could make the point they wanted to make, despite factual support, was ends justifying the means.

Consider the ramifications of pushing false information for personal gain. In 1940, Princeton Professor Hadley Cantril oversold the panic numbers in his study The Invasion from Mars. For others, like Mercury theater co-founder and producer John Houseman, it was beneficial to print the legend in his 1948 Harper’s essay called “Men from Mars” where he claimed millions of Americans panicked over the broadcast. A 1969 Los Angeles Times piece on the broadcast continued the legend that Welles “shocked [the] nation into a state of panic.” The column was excerpted from Erik Barnouw’s history of broadcasting, where the author also cites the history of panic reenactments, taking all reports of panic at face value. This may be harmless when talking about a radio drama based on a fictional story, but what about when people use digital era tools to push narratives like Holocaust denial, or the Alex Jones brand of Sandy Hook disinformation?

Many people see what they want to see today, eagerly swimming in confirmation bias parading as news. What critics got right about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast was that, regardless of debates over actual panic, it drew attention to the importance of media literacy. Many were able to see how this event and its reporting exposed areas for improvement from within our republic. Following the 2016 election, PEW research reported that almost a quarter of Americans shared information they knew to be wrong. How many of those Americans were elected officials? According to the same PEW survey, Two thirds of Americans “say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.” A major reason for this confusion is social media, a form of media that has hit a similar point of inquiry as radio did in 1938.

ORSON WELLES directs the historic WAR OF THE WORLDS radio broadcast for his CBS Mercury Theater show, October 1938.

Orson Welles directing the ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast for his CBS Mercury Theater show in October 1938.

Courtesy Everett Collection

When War of the Worlds was broadcast, it was dramatic theater for some and revealed as orchestrated misinformation for others. At its core was harmless entertainment. Consider the partisan reporting on the January 6th committee versus what is being discussed and presented by both Republicans and Democrats in the investigation. A small percent of the population being confused about War of the Worlds was one thing and it is quite another when many in the population believe the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Tell them that judges across the nation have thrown Trump’s case out and it doesn’t matter – they’re already hoodwinked. They prefer the panic narrative.

Looking at the seven years since A. Brad Schwartz wrote Broadcast Hysteria, he told me that “The most frightened, even panicked, people seem to have been the ones who heard about the ‘invasion’ from people they trusted, whether or not they heard any of the show itself.” This didn’t mean they all thought aliens were invading, but many interpreted the event as either a meteor, Nazi invasion, or even the Biblical Apocalypse. Today, social media algorithms target our biases by, as Schwartz told me, “exploiting the same process that led some people astray during War of the Worlds. And I think that’s how you end up with so many Americans believing what seem, from the outside, to be absolutely insane conspiracy theories. They encountered ideas that confirmed, in some fashion, what they already believe, perhaps because someone they trusted shared it.”

If we cannot agree on who to trust, we should first come to terms of how we are being manipulated on a scale far greater than any radio play. Social media and partisan news seek the same ends – keeping people divided and arguing. A terrifying reality is that a majority of Americans feel that social networking websites and government officials are responsible for policing information. The truth is that we are all responsible for verifying our own information.