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.
9–23; Lenthall, Radio’s America, pp. 86–90, 93–94, 100–101. 13. Allen, Since Yesterday, pp. 103–10. Anthony J. Badger, FDR: The First Hundred Days (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008), pp. 23–26, 35–42. Brown, Manipulating the Ether, p. 64. Michael Hiltzik, The New Deal: A Modern History (New York: Free Press, 2011), pp. 38–51. Lenthall, Radio’s America, pp. 88–89. Lawrence W. Levine and Cornelia R. Levine, The People and the President: America’s Conversation with FDR (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002),
138. Houseman, Unfinished Business, pp. 340–42. Leaming, Orson Welles, pp. 401–402. 139. Thomson, Rosebud, p. 400. Max Allan Collins, The War of the Worlds Murder (New York: Berkeley Prime Crime, 2005), p. 240. 140. Peter Bogdanovich, “My Orson,” introduction to Welles and Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles, pp. xxii–xxiii. 141. Houseman, Unfinished Business, pp. 459–61, 466–68, 470–82. 142. Peter Biskind, ed., My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles (New
introduced himself. After explaining that the ticking came from the machinery of the observatory’s massive telescope, Phillips began to interview Professor Richard Pierson. The astronomer’s deep voice, a bit gruff and self-satisfied, marked him as a man entirely confident in his understanding of the universe and his place in it. With a bit of a chuckle, Pierson derided the popular notion that there were canals on the Martian surface, assuring Phillips that there was almost no possibility that the
momentous was going on, even if the “war” was not real. Many papers composed bulletins describing the phone calls they had received and sent them out on the major news wires. Soon teletype machines in newsrooms coast to coast were chattering with bizarre reports of hysteria and panic. One bulletin said that in Pittsburgh a man called in to say that he had barely stopped his wife from drinking poison before the Martians got her. “I’d rather die this way than like that,” she was quoted as saying.
to be more careful. “You are a very young man who has gone far in a short time,” this Ohioan wrote, “and apparently there are others in the world who do not like your quick progress. I mean this in all seriousness, as that is the way it looks to me. Maybe I’m wrong.”84 * * * Welles and the Mercury had moved on, and War of the Worlds had disappeared from the headlines. But the panic story remained, stuck in the minds of millions. In their letters, many listeners compared the broadcast “to the