Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News
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.
In the days after the War of the Worlds national radio broadcast in October 1938, thousands of Americans sent angry letters to the FCC, CBS, Orson Welles, and his Mercury Theatre. This new study of War of the Worlds dutifully examines those complaint letters and reveals what really happened in America during that chaotic hour-long broadcast. Schwartz's debut book sets the scene perfectly and dispels several myths about any "panic" over a Martian invasion in New Jersey. Schwartz gives proper credit to the supporting cast of actors, writers, and composers who made the radio program into an international sensation. He lays out a balanced case recognizing that some Americans did consider War of the Worlds an actual news report and were deeply frightened by it, but that most treated it as a scary prank or a betrayal of the radio's supposed objectivity. The book rightly emphasizes the enormous power mass media wields over the emotions and politics of the country. Welles's Martian landing might not have fooled today's listeners, but our vulnerability and our appetite for fake news persists. Schwartz's book is an impeccable account of the most famous radio show in history, a fascinating biography of Orson Welles, and a vital lesson about the responsibility of the media.